The Lions series in New Zealand ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
Years of anticipation and weeks of regional preliminaries culminated in a largely referee-induced draw at Eden Park last weekend, ending not only the game, but the series, in a flat-footed tie.
So as we marinate in the dual let-down that was the result of the series and the fact that the Lions now go back into hibernation for four years, here’s what you should take away from the series:
The All Blacks Remain The World’s Best Side
About 471 things had to all go wrong just for the Lions, a team full of Europe’s best players, to manage a series draw against the single -nation side that is the All Blacks. OK, 471 may be an exaggeration. But consider, for example, what the score of the second test becomes if Sonny Bill Williams isn’t red-carded (incidentally, the first time in 50 years that an All Black had been sent off). Consider if Beauden Barrett performs as even a decent goal-kicker in the final two tests. Consider if Julian Savea and his mates don’t fumble away about eight tries in the final match. Consider if Romain Poite doesn’t change the rules regarding offside on a whim at the end of the final match (or even calls a scrum penalty against the Lions immediately thereafter as he probably should have).
Now clearly all of those things did happen, and some of those wounds that the All Blacks inflicted upon themselves shouldn’t be ignored as they form part of the commentary on the status of the All Blacks generally. But still, we saw more than enough from the Kiwis to continue to anoint them as the world’s best.
In fact, no other nation really comes close. England? I guess we’ll find out later this year, but many of the top-performing Lions (Davies, Sexton and Murray immediately come to mind) won’t be donning the red rose in that game. Ireland? Sure, they shocked the Kiwis in Chicago last year, but it seemed like the All Blacks had a pretty good time bouncing around Chi-town in the week before that game. Australia or South Africa? Yeah, right. The Rugby Championship is going to be a Kiwi-imposed demolition derby this year.
If There’s An All Black Achilles Heel, It’s Goal-Kicking
In open play, Beauden Barrett is the best number 10 in the world. Off the tee, he might be the weakest first-choice goal-kicker of any top-tier nation.
With reasonable goal-kicking, the All Blacks win the second test even without Sonny Bill and the Poite shenanigans at the end of the third test become far less painful to watch.
The problem is that the All Blacks really have no other option without dramatically changing what has been their first-choice lineup. The other kicker-types in the current All Black setup are Beauden’s brother Jordie, Aaron Cruden, Damian McKenzie, and Lima Sopoaga.
Cruden is about to leave for Europe, so that eliminates him in any case. The problem with the other players is that you can’t fit them into a lineup that includes both Beauden Barrett at 10 and Ben Smith at 15 (where he happens to be perhaps the world’s best fullback). You could slot McKenzie or Jordie at 15, but then you have to discard Smith. You can slot Sopoaga at 10 and Beauden and 15, but you still have to lose Smith. And none of these guys really play wing or center.
Rugby Refereeing Is Pretty Important
There’s this strange dichotomy in rugby where at times the referee will focus entirely on the letter of the laws without any use of common sense (like penalties and cards for high tackles where the ball carrier ducks into the tackle), and other times where apparently the letter of the law doesn’t matter and discretion (or indiscretion) is the better part of valor (like where a guy in an offside position catches the ball and somehow it’s an accidental offside or whatever the heck Poite came up with, I’m still not sure). We even learned in this series that you can completely ignore the TMO if you like (even where he’s urging you to consider a card for a high tackle or shoulder charge that warrants it).
12 Years Is A Long Time
Can’t we just forego the tours of Australia and South Africa and send the Lions back to New Zealand in four years? Or maybe next year? I even saw someone suggest that a tour of Argentina should be worked in before the Lions are back in New Zealand. That person is a dummy.