The two best sides in the world, overseen by the two best coaches in the world – should we really be that surprised that the series finished in a draw?
What will have surprised many New Zealanders – other than the 1-1 scoreline – is the quality of northern hemisphere rugby. They would have expected the Lions to play with pride and passion. They would have expected physicality, though perhaps not to the levels produced by the visitors in the last two Tests.
What they surely would not have anticipated is the quality of players coming through in the British Isles. I live in England so I am attuned to this but some of those rugby fans living in New Zealand were, I suspect, basing their pre-conceptions on the 2015 World Cup rather than the 2017 Six Nations. There is going to be some revisionism now.
It’s incredible that Maro Itoje only made his first Test start 17 months ago. Yesterday, he had another outstanding 80 minutes against the double world champions in their own back yard yet we almost take it in our stride as if nothing less is expected from the 22-year-old.
I was talking to Rory Best on commentary for Sky Sports and asked him about Itoje. In short, he can do everything: the hard yards and grunt work, running the lineout, comfortable with the ball in hand. It’s indecent how good he is.
Not far behind are Tadhg Furlong and Jamie George. The Lions hooker was disappointed with himself for throwing in crooked at two second half lineouts. He shouldn’t beat himself up too much because he has looked the part on the biggest of stages.
In the backs, the questions asked by the class of Jonathan Davies and the neat footwork of the Lions back three unsettled both the New Zealand defensive line and All Blacks fans.
On the subject of young talent, Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape should also be acclaimed for their contribution in Auckland. It’s a hallmark of New Zealand rugby that talents runs so deep and that it is trusted however much experience it might be lacking.
Neither the 20-year-old Barrett nor Laumape had started a Test before yesterday and were winning only their second cap, but they looked born to the occasion.
Naturally, the All Blacks will look back on the handling errors that could have cost them as many as three tries in the first half. My own take was that they were just overplaying their hand during these passages.
Unlike the first two Tests, there was no constant shower in Auckland last night but the evening dew makes the ball greasy. There were times when the home side tried to force one pass too many and knocked on. A little patience, a few more phases of play leading to a penalty or mismatch in the defensive line should have been the call.
That they pushed harder than they sometimes needed to I attribute to two factors. The first is the quality of the Lions defence which has been exceptional. Then there was and the psychological effect of losing the preceding Test which demanded a reaction. That reaction was plain to see in the first half hour when they came at the Lions but it may have been a touch too desperate.
As the game wore on, the Lions’ tactics in defence got smarter. They didn’t get too narrow and allow New Zealand the space in the channel between the 15m line and touch where they can be so devastating.
They also stopped Kieran Read from getting over the gainline with the same frequency he usually enjoys. Looking back, I wonder how much the blow to the head that the All Black captain sustained shortly before half time had affected him.
This third Test, then, mirrored the tone of the series as a whole: the home side enjoying the better of the opening skirmishes before the Lions found their fluency.
Their coach Warren Gatland deserves enormous praise for the way he has handled the squad on and off the pitch because they have won the respect of the locals in a way that other touring sides since 1971 have not. You didn’t have to be a bar owner either to consider their fans a hugely welcome presence.
I wrote in May that Gatland would find a place in rugby immortality if he won the series. He did not do that but just as significant he and his players have asked questions of Steve Hansen and his team that they have rarely had to face. It is a compliment to Gatland that this group of All Blacks have probably learned more about themselves than they did in either of their two World Cup wins. No one who knew anything about rugby thought of him as a clown last month. The ones who sniggered at that cartoon are the ones with red faces now.
After something as pulsating as this, it feels like a travesty for New Zealanders that we should have to wait another 12 years for the next series. Good luck to South Africa in 2021. Against Lions like these, they will need it.
- Sean Fitzpatrick, IRANZ Board Director