Monday 10th July - 20:00
Part 2 - The Backs
Let's get straight to it.
Conor Murray: A consistently high performance. Improved as the tour progressed and worthy of the tag of the worlds best #9. Aaron Smith might have something to say about though.
Rhys Webb: Did nothing wrong. In fact did a lot right. Waited patiently in the wings for his chance and when it came he delivered. Plenty of years in front of him so 2021 is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Greig Laidlaw: Did what was asked of him. You have to think Ben Youngs would have made more of an impact and Gareth Davies might have been a better choice when Youngs pulled out. No negatives from Laidlaw but no 'wow factor either'.
Owen Farrell: The ice man, with his kicking at least. Not the stellar performances that earned him European player of the year but a very strong contribution throughout.
Johnny Sexton: Slow to start but improved game by game. Some flashes of brilliance but otherwise simple but impactful contribution. Rock solid in the final two tests.
Dan Biggar: Wouldn't have been out of place in the test side but Farrell and Sexton were, barring injury, always ahead of him. I liked the maturity he showed and it is difficult to find fault. He got his mojo back and that augurs well for Wales.
Elliot Daly: Very positive contribution throughout including two monumental kicks. He linked well, tackled and supported as we had hoped. Wasn't everyone's first choice at the beginning but earned it and justified that starting berth.
George North: If there was a star on the wane here we have it. North did ok but nowhere near as well as many had expected. He lacked the magic of four years ago and sadly yet again he was blighted by injury.
Anthony Watson: Another positive contributor both in defence and attack. More than justified his place in the test team. No more needs to be said.
Jack Nowell: Except for a few incisive breaks and a couple of well taken tries I wasn't overly impressed with his overall contribution. Those ahead of him were well ahead of him.
Tommy Seymour: Like Nowell some impressive contributions in bursts but no sustained imapct worthy of a test place. Difficult to find fault so basically he wasn't as good as those selected for the tests.
Ben Te'O: Another who can count himself unlucky not to have started in all three tests. He played well in the warm up game and in defeat made a positive contribution in the first test. A good player and one for the future.
Jared Payne: Sadly succumbed to injury/illness/migraine. That said his performances weren't a patch on those for Ireland. A real disappointment because he has the talent.
Robbie Henshaw: Another who sadly couldn't get into top gear and show his full array of skills. A shame as his Irish form had been excellent.
Jonathan Joseph: The forgotten man. Tipped as a test starter but almost became anonymous. When we did see him he made some good breaks, tackled well but they weren't good enough contributions to get the nod from the selectors.
Jonathan Davies: THE star man throughout. No more needs to be said!
Stuart Hogg: How unlucky is he. Broken by his teammate just when he was coming into form. We wish him a speedy recovery.
Leigh Halfpenny: 2013 man of the series. This time around pretty ordinary. He wasn't given a great deal of game time to prove his worth especially as those ahead of him were certainly making their mark. I also think his current status with no club was weighing on his mind.
Liam Williams: Justified his squad place and test selection in spades. Yes he missed a few high balls and dropped a few clangers but those were made up for with some amazing runs and off-loads.
So that's it for another four years.
I'm not about for a few days so back on Saturday with a look at what is going on beyond the Lions.
Monday 10th July - 09:00
Happy Birthday Nigel. Have a great day, hopefully not fighting too much crime.
OK, let's get to it. MY view on each of the Lions and how they performed.
Firstly the biggest of the hardluck stories....... Joe Launchbury, Finn Russell, George Ford. All could have made a case for Lions selection but missed the cut. Sadly Ben Youngs and Bill Vunipola pulled out. They would have been good tourists.
Secondly the imports from Scotland and Wales, including Finn Russell. They were winners despite only getting 15 minutes of game time between them simply on how they conducted themselves. They were professional and positive and understanding of the situation (outwardly at least) that they found themselves in.
Rory Best: Played well enough, led from the front, captained the side well and was a good Lions ambassador in front of the cameras. Unlucky not to make the test squad.
Joe Marler: Did what was expected but had a few 'rushes of blood to the head'. Wasn't able to replicate his England form in my view.
Dan Cole: A couple of excellent performances yet still couldn't make the test squad. Defensively very solid and good in the scrum. Lacked the fizz maybe of those ahead of him.
Jack McGrath: Did ok. Worthy of his bench spot.... just! Was a positive contributor from the bench. Much better than Cole? Not sure.
Kyle Sinckler: A star in the making. He made an impact everytime he played. Still 'a bit wet behind the ears' but justified his selection on the tour and in the test squad. One to watch.
Ken Owens: Failed to replicate his Wales form, in part because he arrived on tour injured. He did the job asked of him but that was about it. Much better than Best? Not sure.
Jamie George: head and shoulders the best hooker in the squad. Not the most dynamic in those contact areas, Best and Owens beat him there, but his all round play and his contribution in the lose was excellent. Eddie Jones has much to ponder.
Tadgh Furlong: A bit like Cuprinol; he did what 'it said on the tin'. He was the most consistent of the front row in the squad. Difficult to find a negative.
Mako Vunipola: The 'curates egg' springs to mind. Amazing one minute, mindless the next. Overall a very solid tour, barring those mental lapses in the second test. Well worth his starting test berth.
Maro Itoje: Magnificent. Some stupid penalties conceded from immaturity but otherwise a superstar in the making.
George Kruis: Tough call to select him ahead of Launchbury. With hindsight it might not have been the best decision. He did ok but the imapct was less than his best for Sarries and England.
Courtney Lawes: Not given the best opportunities to shine as Gatland stuck with his trusty lieutenant Jones. His contribution was always positive. Will be in contention for the England starting spot at #5 I think.
Alun Wyn Jones: Not such a good peformance in the first test but otherwise a solid contribution throughout. Contentious selection ahead of Lawes and Henderson but his experience was crucial, and so it proved.
Iain Henderson: Very unlucky not to get a sniff of a place in the test 23. He did little wrong and a lot right. He's one to watch and will be a real asset for the Irish going forward.
Justin Tipuric: Probably the most consistent performer not to get a test place. He played well everytime he pulled on the shirt. He lacked the firepower of those ahead of him sadly. A fine tour nevertheless.
Ross Moriarty: Worthy of his selection but sad to see him go home so soon. I feel he would have pushed for a test spot all day long.
James Haskell: Another who did 'what it said on the tin'. A worthy call up after Moriarty went home and made a positive contribution. Not good enough to oust those ahead of him though.
Sean O'Brien: Lived up to his status as a top flight #7. Excellent throughout and sad to see him with his arm in a sling on Saturday. No-one could dispute his selection.
Peter O'Mahony: Very worth of the captaincy in the first test and worthy of the spot. Very unlucky to be dropped altogether for tests 2 and 3. A solid tour for someone who only came into Lions reckoning late in the 6 Nations.
CJ Stander: I expected more from him. He played well enough with some bullocking runs but lacked that sparkle we've seen him display for Ireland. I think he was lucky to be included for the tests ahead of Tipuric and O'Mahony.
Taulupe Faletau: The slient assassin. Another amazing tour for him. Did the hard work effectively and without fuss. He might have been pushed to keep his spot if Billy Vunipola hadn't pulled out.
Sam Warburton: More than justified his selection in the squad, and as captain. He did everything we expect of Warburton and more. His leadership was first class and he brought an edge to tests 2 and 3 just when it was needed.
That's the forwards done. Backs tonight for tomorrow morning.
Sunday 9th July - 10:00
Based on everything I've read in the 24 hours since the game finished there appears to be a general concensus that the draw has left a hollow feeling for both teams and both sets of supporters. The anticipation of victory was high in both camps so to come away without that victory but not having lost the match or test series is slightly surreal. I understand that cold, dispassionate view from the hacks but for the thousands of fans who left these shores with the hope of a good series and avoiding a 3-0 test whitewash this is an amazing result. After the early defeats by the Blues and the Highlanders and then defeat in the first test this closing scenario would have been a dream so I anticipate the fans, and ultimately the Lions players and coaches will be delighted with this outcome.
On the other side of the fence however I think the All Blacks will be relieved at not losing but kicking themselves, and possibly wanting to kick Romain Poite, for failing to exploit the chances presented to them. The contentious penalty, or non penalty decision was not the issue. At times they were sloppy when guilt-edged chances were there for the taking.
There is a unanimous view that we have seen a true global superstar in the making by the name of Itoje but the man of the tour is without question Jonathan Davies. One of the key turning points yesterday could have been Farrell's pass getting to Watson and not being intercepted. Equally it could easily have seen New Zealand blow the Lions away if Davies had not chased back to make a superb defensive tackle to thwart the All Black try. This epitomised his contribution, oh and how he unceremoniously dumped Jordie Barrett to the floor.
By the way it should have been a penalty, but I still believe Poite was in two minds about Read's clattering of Liam Williams in the air. Basically he got his knickers in a twist and made the wrong call.
Warren Gatland, much maligned has come out of this with his reputation in tact. I think the decision to bring the players in from Scotland and Wales was right but not to use them was wrong. I think his selection decisions, as they were in Australia four years earlier, have proven to be right. His coaching team have been excellent. His selection of Sam Warburton as captain was the right one. Warburton's captaincy and leadership was excellent and in the last two tests he more than justified his spot in the team. I believe that as Kieran Read was whingeing away at Poite Warburton's calm demeanour and knowledge of Poite was used to help swing that crucial penalty decision the Lions way.
I'll review the players in detail tomorrow but as the SKY report has indicated Owen Farrell must have ice running through his veins to hit that last Lions penalty so sweetly.
The other big issue or talking point is the future of the Lions. There is an unsatisfactory calmour by the premiership clubs for the Lions to be brought to a close. As I have said this is about money and the clubs taking control of the game in England. I am certain not a single player on that tour would say; 'yeah, I agree, the Lions are an unnecessary distraction that's had its day. I don't want to be a part of it.'. The world blazers who run our game, under pressure from the clubs, have already decreed that future tours will be 8 games, down from 10. This makes a degree of sense and would be a sensible compromise. Unfortunately during the four years until South Africa in 2021 the clubs will become more powerful and less dependent on the RFU as more and more money flows into their bank accounts. BT are pouring millions into the premiership coffers and with the new exclusive European deal they will be getting even more. Sadly at the same time players wages are escalating to crazy levels thus putting more and more pressure on the clubs to raise revenue. As a consequence their biggest asset; the players needs to be available more frequently. I can see a time when the clubs will simple say to the RFU AND the players that are not available for international duty. The Lions will be way down the pecking order for accessing England's club players.
Steve Tew, CEO of NZRFU has said any decision to scrap the Lions might have a knock-on effect for Autumn and Summer tours. Tew states that the home unions benefit significantly more from the Autumn internationals than the touring nations which he is unhappy about. He goes on to say that although 12 years apart the Lions tours help offset the difference. He has said that a decision to stop Lions tours may result in New Zealand not touring the home nations. I understand his point fully but this is no threat to the English clubs. In fact, in my view, this will see them rubbing their hands with glee. 'Great, no Autumn internationals, only the 6 Nations to get rid of now. Happy days!'. There is no easy answer but as I have said over and over again rugby at grassroots level is not in a great state and any increase in power of the premiership clubs will only worsen this position, not help it recover.
In closing the thousands of fans who have spent their hard earned cash to get to New Zealand will start heading home today. They will be the last to be calling for the Lions to end. By the way, based on the number of Welsh flags around the ground yesterday Wales must have been closed for the weekend. It is amazing how far you can stretch your benefit cheque....... only joking of course!!!!
Saturday 8th July - 11:30
My hands are still shaking, my blood pressure is way too high and my heart is still thumping. What a game of rugby, what a last twenty minutes. At times brutal, at times a ballet, at times a game of chess. Simply a magnificent game and for those who were there what an unbelievable occasion. There will be many in black shouting; 'we were robbed', followed by 'French referee, zut alors!'. Of course I am referring to the penalty that wasn't. Now here you could argue that the Lions were the ones robbed. Kieran Read had no chance of catching that ball and simply clattered into Liam Williams. Should it have been a penalty to the All Blacks? Probably, but it wasn't so let's move on.
In that opening half the All Blacks were mesmeric and should have been out of sight. Basic handling errors when not under pressure, who would have believed that possible. Savea should have scored, that one was clear cut. In that opening half the Lions defence was too narrow giving the men in black too much time and space. In the second half the defensive set up was changed and proved far more effective. The Lions also upped the intensity in the contact areas and in that last 40 minutes it paid dividends.
The Lions were far from perfect and yet again kicking away hard won ball nearly resulted in the Lions downfall. Keeping the ball and making those hard yards would have been more beneficial. I thought the penalty count was kept under control and some of the penalties conceded could have, or should have gone the other way.
With the ball in hand when going forward the Lions looked sharp creating some good openings. Murray kept the ball moving and Sexton and Farrell brought the runners into play well. Jonathan Davies was again magnificent. The back three played their part but didn't quite get the door open wide enough to make the space to break free. The forwards worked hard led admirably by Sam Warburton with Maro Itoje showing what a prospect he is. Don't be surprised if he is Lions captain in four years time, and leading England at RWC 2019. Losing O'Brien at half time was a blow but Stander played his part when he came on. Shame Jamie George's lineout throwing became wayward because otherwise he had a solid game.
Looking at the debit side of the balance sheet there were times when slowing down and doing the very simple things well, rather than doing the speculative would have made sense. Under the high ball Williams was a little shaky and as already said some of the box kicking was poor. The defence was flaky in the first half but that was as much down to the All Blacks brilliance as it was to poor Lions play.
We all have 20/20 hindsight but on this occasion I for one wouldn't have made any changes to selection pre-match, however, I would have brought Ben Te'O on earlier for Sexton. Just to shake things up a little and give the All Blacks something else to worry about. When Warburton went off for his HIA why didn't Itoje go to #7? That one I didn't understand. Alun Wyn Jones played really well but bringing on Lawes was the right decision at that time.
I am not going to pick a man of the match because so many on both sides did so many wonderful things. Jordie Barrett, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies, Maro Itoje to name just a few. We must also applaud Gatland for his leadership. 'Damned if you do, damned if you don't'. He stuck to his guns and to come away from New Zealand, especially as the last match was at 'fortress' Eden Park with a series draw is a magnificent achievement. I will stick my neck out and say the man of the series in my mind is Jonathan Davies.
A couple of other comments. The scrum; at times was too slow to set, and when did the law change that said the scrum half, particularly Aaron Smith was allowed to put the ball in under the second row's feet? The yellow card for Keino; pretty fair I thought. The travelling Lions fans; simply magnificent. What an experience for them. Romaine Poite; ok but I felt he was a little indecisive and inaccurate at times. Finally please explain to me why Kieran Read was not taken off for a HIA? His knock was worse than any of the others.
One rant please. What a bunch of tossers those Scots who went on line via Twitter, text and e:mail decrying the fact no Scots were in the starting 23 and they would now be shouting for New Zealand. Perhaps independence isn't such a bad idea. Likewise those clowns who made adverse comments about Alun Wyn Jones selection. Get over it.
The curtain comes down on what has been an excellent tour. Some amazing matches played between two sides with amazing players. In four years time it is South Africa but what shape will the tour take? More on this tomorrow but for now let us all get our breath back, sit back and watch the highlight reel and reflect on the Lions success, because a success it is!
For info tomorrow I will reflect on NZRFU's CEO Steve Tew's comments about the Lions, and comment on the view from the papers. On Monday I will look at the players and reflect on those whose stock has gone up in value, those whose stock might have gone down and those who didn't get the chance to really show what they have in their locker. For now GREAT STUFF. WHAT a finale!!
Wednesday 5th July - 21:00
Steve Hansen has rolled his dice and announced his team for Saturday. Unsurprisingly Ngani Luamape comes in for the suspended Sonny Bill Williams. This doesn't weaken the side in the least. In fact I think it strengthens it as the previous reliance on Sonny Bill to make the hard yards will need to be shared. Luamape made quite an impact when he came on last weekend so I expect much of the same with him taking a straight line to the #10/#12 channel on a regular basis. Rieko Ioane drops to the bench with Julien Savea coming in to replace him. Savea on his day is world class so yet another headache for the Lions to manage. Israel Dagg moves to the wing to replace the injured Naholo with Jordie Barrett coming into full back for his first All Black start, his other appearances being from the bench. Kieran Read will make his 100th test appearance. Congratulations to him on that amazing achievement. The big question will be, and it is more for the statiticians than anybody else; will Jordie, Beauden and Scott Barrett get to be on the field at the same time. Has that be done before, three brothers playing international rugby together?
It comes as no surprise that Warren Gatland has named the same 23 ahead of Saturday. Mako Vunipola keeps his place despite the poor discipline of last week. Alan Wyn Jones also keeps his place ahead of Courtney Lawes but in my mind that was never really in doubt. With regard to Vunipola many Fez heads, and others, have said his ill-discipline was very much out of character. Let's hope so. Liam Williams, who missed training today is obviously ok so no place for Leigh Halfpenny.
What can we expect on Saturday. Firstly the All Blacks will still be smarting at the defeat and will be like a wounded animal seeking revenge on its hunter. The All Blacks will have been knocking lumps out of each other this week and will not need any further motivation. The springs are wound tight and at 19:35 at Eden Park the whistle will go and 15 men in black will as one attack their opposition in red.
The men in red have a date with history if they were to win. They mustn't be bullied, they can't allow the All Blacks to get onto the front foot and if it is in black in front of them no matter how much it is snarling and slathering at the chops the beast must be put down first time, everytime. Defence is key. Repeat the heroics of last week and cut out the stupid penalties there is a chance. The thousands of Lions fans must be heard and roar on their champions. Silencing the All Black crowd will unsettle the men on the field. Points on the board early please and do the basics right.
Where will it be won and lost. Who wins the back row battle will be a factor. The number of times the ball gets to Daly, Williams and Watson in space will give an early indication of success. Keeping Aaron Smith on the back foot and rattling the Barretts is important. It is enormous. Can't wait.
The All Blacks have the history of Eden Park on their side. Do not underestimate the Lions though. Back on Saturday after the game.
Wednesday 5th July - 10:00
No game to review today so a quick look at where the Lions have spent their R&R period and what the fans might be doing now. Firstly though thanks for the continued positive feedback on the blog. I know my political comments irritate a few/many but hey ho do I care.
The squad flew down to Queenstown for some well deserved rest away from training and the rigours of match preparation. Queenstown is the adrenalin capital of New Zealand on the edge of Lake Wakatipu in the shadow of the wonderfully named mountains The Remarkables. It is also home to the now infamous Altitude Bar where during RWC 2011 the England team got embrolied in the dwarf throwing scandal. The scenery from the top of Bob's Peak is fantastic and a trip around the Lake to see where the rich folks live is superb. When we were there in 2011 our highlight was the jet boat through Skippers Canyon. Exhilarating or what? This was where we met Adam Jones mum & dad for the first time. Sadly Mrs Jones in no longer with us but our memories of her will never fade. More sedate is a bus ride to Arrowtown, a small colonial gold mining town dating back to mid 1800s where the Chinese migrants gravitated during the 'gold rush'. Great bars in Arrowtown by the way. Queenstown is the home of bungee jumping which Taulupe Faletau experienced this week. Nutter!
Many of the fans travelling around in their campervans will be winding their way north back to Auckland. Some great places to stop along the way; Taupo and Tauranga to name but two. Others with Gullivers or Venatours might have jetted off to Fiji or Sydney for a few days away from the rugby. Those going to Fiji will have an amazing time. We certainly did, especially the day trip out on the schooner to Mondriki Island where they filmed Tom Hanks in Castaway. Those going to Sydney might be slightlay taken aback with how cold it is. Whilst we are basking in glorious weather parts of Australia are experiencing the coldest winter in a very long time. If they go nowhere else then the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are musts. Many will simply soak up the atmosphere as it builds in Auckland soaking up the beer and wine in equal measures. Those looking for a break from the alcohol might want to take the short ferry ride out to Weiheke Island. Whilst not at its brilliant best in the winter still well worth while. Equally well worth while is a trip to Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World. I am sure everyone is having a great time and the fact they have a 'winner takes all' match to watch on Saturday is an added bonus.
The squad is announced tonight I think. If before 11pm then I'll comment otherwise possibly no blog until post game on Saturday morning. Yes, I am back to Bridgnorth at the crack of dawn tomorrow. Based on the pundits views I don't see any changes to the match day 23. Mako on the bench perhaps but that is it.
As an aside it is worrying to read about Jared Payne's migraine issues. Is that injury related or a simply quirk of fate he has to deal with.
I see a number of old heads, for example Gavin Hastings, have come out asking for the club owners and coaches to recognise the value of the Lions to world rugby and not just to look at the cost. Basically stop whingeing and asking/demanding that the Lions are to be no more. Yes the old adage is true; many people know the cost of everything but the value of nothing!.
Not wishing to sound a smug b'stard but later today I'll be giving blood again. Many of you are too old to start but if you have youngsters please encourage them to do so. It is very rewarding and so easy to do.
Monday 3rd July - 13:00
Good news that Sean O'Brien has been cleared of dangerous play and is available for the 3rd and final test on Saturday. I must confess I am a little surprised but that is often how these things play out. Based on this good news I am guessing the only selection issue to be debated is Mako Vunipola. Time will tell.
For some time I have been concerned about the growing strength of the premiership clubs and their influence over our game. As you know I have written about Mark McCall and Richard Cockerill's (even though the latter is now in France) wish that international rugby would just simply go away. It takes away their players for weeks on end and puts them at risk of injury. It is not rocket science to understand that the players are the clubs No.1 asset and need to be protected. It is also about money. The Premiership and the European tournaments are wonderful cash generators for the clubs. Internationals are not, noting that the RFU does compensate clubs when players are away on international duty. When you think that in an 'ordinary' season there are three autumn internationals and then after Christmas there is the 6 Nations with another five games plus the weeks ahead of, and during the tournaments when players are away from their clubs. This all adds up. When you then factor in every four years there is the world cup and then there is the Lions tour. Both between seven and eight weeks of intense training and competition. Think about what has just happened. George North, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg all going back to their clubs with major injuries. Whilst the Lions might compensate the clubs for this it does not cover the fact first choice players are now unavailable. As a premiership coach or an owner you can therefore understand why this is an issue.
Look at it from a supporters viewpoint however. The 6 Nations and the world cup, and especially the Lions tours are amazing tournaments which engage with the games grassroots supporters but more importantly sports fans who might consider switching their alliegance to rugby. 30,000 fans went to Australia in 2013 and it is believed the same are in New Zealand right now. Think about the millions watching on TV. That speaks volumes for the power of the Lions. When you see the mass of Welsh fans in Dublin for Ireland v Wales you get to understand the importance of these games. Take that away because the clubs don't like it then what happens. Overall interest in the game diminshes but most importantly the revenue the unions generate from these games is lost and so the grassroots rugby declines.
The other piece of the jigsaw is the impact Lions tours and World Cups have on the host countries economy. If you are Nigel Wray you probably don't give a damn about that but for the host countries the income boost to their economies is most welcome.
Ok, to the point. Based on the many dissenting voices from the premiership clubs in particular I anticipate that the minute this tour is over the debate about future tours will begin. The debate will be about whether clubs release their players, about the length of the tour, about the timing of the tour, and whether the Lions should exist at all. It would be a great shame if the tour in its current format were to change but as money talks I forsee many changes ahead. My guess is a shorter tour with fewer warm-up games starting a few weeks after the domestic season has finished. It will be a shame if that comes to pass. Only time will tell.
My final comments on this are to say to the objectors 'stop saying it is about player welfare. You don't want the players to play fewer games you just want all the games they play to be for you!' I also say what do the players want. I bet they want to play International rugby and for the Lions. Not just for the kudos but also for the money.
Sunday 2nd July - 11:50
Okay, okay I got it wrong. Beauden Barrett wasn't the All Black's man of the match. Having watched the highlights his kicking was a negative difference between the sides and some of his passing was erratic and his decision making not perfect. In part this was down to the excellent defence of the Lions forcing the All Blacks onto the back foot. Without doubt the Lions will have to match and exceed this next week if they are to triumph.
In general the papers and pundits are pretty aligned that this was an excellent Lions performance but, and there are two of them, it was against 14 men for the large part and the All Blacks left a number of points on the table thanks to Barrett's kicking. There is a unanimous call for the Lions discipline to be dramatically improved. The penalty count is unacceptably high. Again unanimously the pundits pick out Maro Itoje for special praise but, and yes there is one, he conceded a couple of crucial penalties at key moments.
The other key talking points were the sending off, Mako Vunipola and today Sean O'Brien. Firstly there is no doubt that the sending off was right. It was a brave call by Garces, who when you watch the highlights was under pressure from Peyper and Poite to take a less severe road. He was right, they were wrong. The pundits were in agreement that Vunipola was poor yesterday. His scrummaging was off the mark and his ill-discipline was embarrasing. It could be argued his cheap shot on Barrett might easily have been red and not yellow. His place in the squad must be in doubt for next Saturday. Finally Sean O'Brien is in front of the headmaster this morning after being cited for his swinging arm into the face of Naholo. I think there is a high risk that O'Brien's tour will be over. Is that harsh? I don't think so. There did appear to be some malice in his actions.
What changes do we anticipate? Very few but I think Vunipola will get bounced out and O'Brien will be banned. McGrath will start and I hope, because I think he is the best option, that Tipuric gets the call. The obvious decision is Stander who was on the bench but he is slower around the park and is less capable in the loose. Yes Stander has the edge in the tight and those heavy collision areas but you are looking to replace O'Brien and Tipuric in my opinion is the closest in style, ability and skill set. Barring injuries I would then leave the rest of squad as is.
Discipline is the key to success next week, as is the decision making. Farrell and Sexton need to build on Saturday by getting Davies into the game more and get that exciting back three running on to the ball at pace. The defence will again dictate the game. If the All Blacks are not put on the back foot, and they find a way to nullify the rush defence the Lions will be up against it. I also fear that Laumape will prove to be a more than able battering ram heading straight into the #10/#12 channel causing mayhem. This will need to be planned for. Beware the wounded animal. The kiwis are wounded and bitter. They will bite back, and bite hard.
One of the reasons it is now approaching 'opening' time and I am still writing this is Rob Baxter was on the radio this morning talking very eloquently about the Lions result and their performance. I just had to listen. He also brought into question the future of the Lions vis-a-vis the domestic, European and international demands. I intend to expand on this tomorrow.
The CRFC 1st XV fixtures for next season are now available. Gooogle RFU London and following the link to 'news'. They are there as a downloadable PDF.
A big well done to CRFC and the staff and volunteers who put on what sounds like an amazingly successful summer ball. Really sorry I wasn't there but already diarising next year.
Finally a rant, because I can. I find it appalling that people are politicising the terrible Grenfell tragedy. To see banners proclaiming 'capitalism kills' with images of the burnt out tower is appalling. By all means oppose capitalism and scream about austerity (which in my humble opinion is financial common sense in that you can't spend what you haven't got and you need to get debt under control) but don't try and say capitalism caused that fire. A faulty fridge caused the fire. By the way, in the need for balance it must be remembered that during the depths of Stalin's socialist era millions died of starvation, especially those in the Ukraine where farms were requisitioned for the 'collective' good of the people. This at a time when the elite were in their dachas living like kings. Plus ca change, rien ca change .... or something like that.
Can't wait for Comrade Paddy O'Fez to contact me about my Welsh bias and with steam pouring from his ears my (ultra) right wing comments, depsite being very proud of my paternal grandfather who stood as a communist council candidate in Neath in South Wales.
Saturday 1st July - 11:30
My heart is still thumping, my blood pressure still way too high but who cares. What a win. That said it was only yesterday at Friday Club when GoogleKen and I were saying the only way to beat the All Blacks is if the Lions could have an extra man, and so it turned out. Was that the difference? In the end probably 'yes'! The All Blacks tired and the Lions exploited that. Was it a red card? My immediate reaction was red and I think the referee got it spot on, and well done to him. He could have bottled it and gone yellow. He didn't. Why have I started there? Simply because Sonny Bill Williams is such an enormous influence for the All Blacks. The added implication of course was the bold decision to take the amazing Jerome Keino off.
The Lions started well and looked sharp in both defence and attack. Some early positive indications that the Lions 'were up for it'. The #10 / #12 axis worked well and the back row had a powerful game. Sam Warburton was a terrier in defence whilst Faletau and O'Brien made the hard yards and the hard tackles. All too often though it counted for nought as the Lions conceded silly penalties. Thankfully Beauden Barrett's kicking was not perfect this week. Despite the extra man the Lions' wide men were not used as effectively as they could have been but when they did get the ball they got beyond the gain line. Liam Williams going forward was excellent but under the high ball looked suspect on several occasions. Jonathan Davies didn't see much of the ball but when he did he made a positive impact.
Kieran Read was kept quiet and with Keino off Sam Cane, who was magnificent for the men in black had too much to do so became less influential. Aaron Smith didn't have the armchair ride of last week so the All Blacks were getting the ball either going backwards or at best from a standing start. The All Black debutants all made a positive impression, again highlighting the amazing strength in depth New Zealand have. Laumape in particular was tremendous. It wasn't enough though.
Maro Itoje had a cracking game, and except for a couple of lapses in concentration early on did everything asked of him perfectly. Alun Wyn Jones played really well but was beginning to flag so bringing Lawes on was the right call. Where I was a little disappointed was the contribution of Vunipola. His scrummaging was off and his discipline was poor. His yellow could easily have been red. Jamie George had another fine game. Eddie Jones take note. His break was classic George and it set up the scoring opportunity, which this week were converted. Don't underestimate the quality and timing of Liam Williams pass for Faletau to score, and what a score. Not a classic but important because of the timing and impact on the All Blacks. As I was suggesting an appearance from Rhys Webb was long over due so Conor Murray pops over for the architypal scrum half show and go. What do I know?
The winning penalty will be much debated. Kieran Read rather sarcastically asked Msr Garces 'if I jump into the tackle I can get a penalty can I?' Actually a good question as Sinckler wasn't taking a catch he jumped to take a pass. Is it the same thing? In law yes, and it potentially was dangerous. The record books says penalty and three points. Let's move on.
One stat stood out for me. It was in the second half when the Lions had had to make 96 tackles to the All Blacks 60. This is 15 vs 14 men so in theory it should have been the other way around. It proves what an amazing side the All Blacks are.
Let us not be blinded by the result there is still much to ponder. The penalty count was still too high and discipline needs to be spot on throughout. The scrum creaked at times and the Lions were second to the breakdown too often. The decision making and vision could be sharper. McGrath should have off-loaded to the men out wide rather than causing the 'crossing' with O'Brien as an example.
Positively the All Blacks were frequently on the back foot meaning their 'go forward' was stifled. The first up tackling was robust and restricted the All Blacks to fewer off-loads. The lineout was excellent and overall the ball retention was very good.
The bottom line: it sets up a must see final test in Auckland next weekend.
My final assessment. Would the Lions have won if it had been 15 v 15 for 80 minutes? Probably not. Did the Lions deserve to win based on what was in front of them? Yes, they were the better side. My man of the match: Maro Itoje. The All Blacks player who stood out: Beauden Barrett, epitomised by him late in the game escaping from four would be Lions tacklers, putting in a mighty hand off and them almost simutaneously kicking the ball to make great ground.
More thoughts tomorrow plus a view about possible changes to the squad but for now a celebratory cup of coffee and a nice fresh pain au chocolat.
Thursday 29th June - 09:45
I didn't see that coming. Sexton at #10 and Farrell at #12. I like many thought Ben Te'O had done enough last weekend to keep his place at inside centre but obviously Gatland and his coaching team think differently. Unlike George North who is now out of the tour with a hamstring injury Farrell is a proven #12 having played there for England with great skill and determination. Farrell is a robust tackler so no worries there. Sexton has been regaining his confidence throughout the tour and has shown some of the brilliance that has gained him great praise throughout his international career. He will need to draw on all of that experience and be on top of his game on Saturday morning though.
I can also see this working in attack. On Tuesday North was taking the ball off Laidlaw on a regular basis. If Farrell finds himself in that position on Saturday then he will naturally be more comfortable than other players might be thus allowing the speed of the back three to be exploited.
Let me just throw one thought out there. When Andy Farrell was with the England set-up I regular criticised what seemed to be his dominant influence over Stuart Lancaster, especially when it came to selection. Is this another case of nepotism over pragmatism and Ben Te'O loses out as a consequence.
The front row, both starting and on the bench, is unchanged. No surprise there even though Dan Cole might have crossed the selectors minds, albeit fleetingly. Other than Farrell for Te'O no other changes in the backs. I would have been surprised if there had been but the challenge now is to deliver the same again. Murray stays at #9 with Webb pacing around like a caged Lion in the wings. Fair enough BUT Gatland needs to use Webb earlier in the proceedings. As expected Sam Warburton starts alongside O'Brien and Faletau. Faletau needs a big game this weekend if he is to keep CJ Stander at bay.
I am guessing that the biggest debate of the selection meeting was around who plays alongside Maro Itoje. He was penned into the side the minute the final whistle went last week but who was going to pack down alongside him was the big question. I am a little surprised Alun Wyn gets the nod but on the other hand if there is one player who Gatland has complete trust in it is Jones. George Kruis didn't do much wrong last week but didn't make any sort of impact either. Courtney Lawes was pretty good against the Hurricanes but can blow hot and cold, especially when the chips are down.... I think. Iain Henderson put in an excellent shift on Tuesday but most of that was when the game was pretty open. He sometimes lacks the aggressive edge when the 'dark arts' are needed. It could be argued you could make a case for anyone of them to be alongside Itoje. He's gone for Jones so let's hope Jones can replicate the form of tests two and three in Australia and not the mediocre showing of last week.
Alongside Owens, Sinckler, McGrath and Webb on the bench are Te'O, Lawes, Stander and Nowell. Te'O can feel a little aggrieved and Lawes makes sense but then again no-one would have been surprised if Henderson had got the nod. Peter O'Mahony will be in the stands quietly frustrated after losing out. He didn't do much wrong last weekend and it seems a little like a slap in the face to be out of the 23. Stander does bring a more aggressive approach to the game. He made some hard yards on Tuesday, as he has done in his other games and he is not afraid to run at the brick, or as it will be on Saturday, black wall when it is in front of him. So to Jack Nowell. I am not a great fan. He is too erratic in his play and lacks positional discipline and can be frail in defence. That said after the pathetic showing in his first game he is the one player who has consistently improved as the tour has progressed. With North and Henshaw injured, Joseph anonymous on Tuesday, Payne missing in action and Halfpenny somewhat below his previous best I guess Nowell was the last boy in the playground so gets his chance. If fit I would have gone with North, and then Halfpenny, but of course Comrade O'Fez will be screaming 'bias' at me even before the ink is dry on this drivel.
You have to feel for Dan Cole and Justin Tipuric. Neither have done anything wrong, in fact have done much right but sadly they aren't anywhere near a test place.
The All Blacks have been forced into making changes too. Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty are are both injured. (I worry for Smith as he is another suffering way too many head knocks and picking up too many other injuries). In come Naholo and Lienert-Brown. Wow they are going to weaken the side..... NOT!!!! Kaino is fit which is good for the All Blacks and not so good for the Lions.
Not long to wait now.
Back on Saturday as soon as the game has finished, hopefully without the ffffnnnnn IT issues of last week.
Tuesday 27th June - 21:15
I managed to get through the day without finding out the result. I am so glad I did as it was another cracking game of rugby. Yet again as an advert for our great game it hit the mark. The result was disappointing and for me the big question is why bother bringing guys into the squad and then have them sit on their backside for two games watching starters struggle with fatigue late on. It simply doesn't make sense and it definitely helped the Hurricanes get back into the game.
This was the final audition for test places and whilst no-one played badly no-one screamed 'pick me, pick me'. Much is being said about Courtney Lawes' performance but in my opinion it wasn't strong enough. In fact I felt he was eclipsed by Iain Henderson who had a fine game. Fine, except for one rush of blood to the head when he quite rightly saw yellow. Henderson is possibly the only player that is troubling the selectors thoughts at the moment. Paddy O'Fez has been in touch and in a very round-about way accused me of bias in favour of the Welsh. Well Comrade you'll be delighted to know that I thought Dan Biggar played really well and if it wasn't for Sexton and Farrell ahead of him he could be in the reckoning. As expected Tipuric did nothing wrong and George North stepped up to the plate and did a solid job at inside centre after the early inury to Henshaw. It wasn't enough to earn a bench spot but well done George. CJ Stander and Haskell 'dogged' around the park but again nothing said to me 'test spot'. Dan Cole was again very good, except for that cheap shot which largely went un-noticed in the first half.
Talking of cheap shots there was far to much niggle and off the ball nonsense for my liking. It was unedifying to say the least and detracted from an otherwise excellent game.
The other big opportunity was laid in front of Jonathan Joseph. He did little wrong but equally did little to inspire me to pick him in the test squad, not that I am picking the test squad of course. Leigh Halfpenny did some good things, except dropping what looked the simplest of catches. Tommy Seymour signed off his tour with a couple of tries, and Jack Nowell was Jack Nowell, overall pretty good but sometimes you just simply had to shout 'where the !*$! are you going!!'. Laidlaw did alright and that off load to Seymour was pretty special. His pass was laboured from the tackle/ruck though. On Saturday Murray or Webb must be sharper than laidlaw was. Finally Best and Marler did ok. Best led from the front and I liked his captaincy style. A little in the face of the referee but very politely, and no histrionics with his team just calm and precise guidance.
The Hurricanes played some great stuff and their last but one try was sublime. I know the Lions were down to 14 men but they were sliced open like a kipper. What a move. They could easily have won if their early penalty count hadn't gifted the Lions several points. Jordie Barrett looks a player and is certain to get more All Black caps. Mr & Mrs Barrett must be very proud.
The test squad is announced in the early hours of Thursday but I really can't see many changes now. The emphasis will need to be on the tactics. Keep the ball in hand. Don't chase the game when under pressure. Be much more aggressive at ruck and maul. Get the All Blacks onto the back foot. Don't be afraid to target Beauden Barrett (as the All Blacks did with Conor Murray). Get the ball away from contact quickly. The All Blacks are not afraid to have big forwards out wide. Watch for this and exploit it. All of course easier said than done. The absolute key is at the tackle find a way to slow down or nullify the All Blacks off-loading game.
More on Thursday morning after the squad is announced.
To ensure balance is restored well done Ireland, a fine win over Japan and a perfect summer tour for them. Wales scraped a win against Samoa but I understand most of the team had a terrible stomach bug, so bad the changing room at half time was like Newcastle's Big Market on a Saturday night: bodies and vomit everywhere. After Scotland's fine win against Australia they were brought back to earth with a bump going down to Fiji. Finally the annoucement that rugby in South Africa is dead might be a little premature, albeit the French looked knackered after a long season.
No rant today. Too worn out. Looking after the grandson is exhausting, even with two of us doing it.
Monday 26th June - 17:30
Back from Bridgnorth. Glad to say the business reasons for going went well and mum got a clean bill of health from the doctors this morning.
A quick rant before I look at tomorrow's team and possible changes for Saturday. Regardless of who he is, regardless of his politics, it is outrageous that John McDonnell has stated that the Grenfell Tower victims were murdered and it was also down to austerity. No-one set out to murder these innocent people. It was not a deliberate act and to call it murder is not acceptable. The slaying of innocents at Finsbury Park or Westminster or Manchester was murder. This was a terrible, terrible accident. The police and other authorities need to investigate thoroughly and any wrong doing, especially fraudulent behaviour needs to be punished to the full extend that the law allows but please don't call it murder. To blame it on austerity is also a disgrace. If austerity was involved these people wouldn't have had a roof over their head, the council wouldn't have tried to improve their lot, and so I could go on. After the deaths of so many it is disgusting for politicians of any persuasion to try and score cheap points on the back of this tragedy. Rant over.
Back to rugby. The Lions take on the Hurricanes tomorrow in the cake tin in Wellington, New Zealand's capital city. They will have their work cut out, however, if those in red go out there with the view that there are still two tests to come and test places are not yet fixed then they should overcome the hosts. Jonathan Jospeh has reappeared from his exile and starts in the centre alongside Robbie Henshaw. Joseph has an outside chance of ousting Ben Te'O from the centre spot so a good game is required. Jack Nowell at full back is odd but I guess with all the other options likely to remain in Saturday's 23 it leaves Gatland with little choice. George North has a chance to get back into favour but he will have to play like a man possessed if he is to dislodge Elliot Daly. It looks as if Best, Cole and Marler are not going to see action on Tuesday and Saturday. Another day in a warm coat and blazer and tie awaits them on the 1st of July me thinks. Biggar and Laidlaw will also be in the stands alongsise them. Where it gets interesting is the second row and back row. Neither Alun Wyn Jones nor George Kruis were inspiring last weekend and both could be axed. Courtney Lawes with his abrasive game could get the nod ahead of them both and partner Maro Itoje in the test starting line-up. Iain Henderson is a skillful player but lacks that combative edge, the bit of nastiness that was lacking in the first game. If we assume Sam Warburton is going to start and Faletau will keep his place at No.8 is Sean O'Brien's place up for grabs? I don't know but a big game from CJ Stander who can be a bit sluggish around the park at times does have the ability to disrupt, annoy, frustrate and get in the face of the opposition might just find himself in the starting line-up. I think Tipuric has been great and confident he will have another big game tomorrow. Like Henderson he is skillful and agile but not necessarily the aggravating tow-rag Gatland needs. Finally I hope Gatland uses the bench against the Hurricanes despite the continue mis-placed howls of derision about his selection. Intersting that Kruis is also on that bench.
As you know by now Tuesday is grandparenting duties so once again I will endeavour to get through the day without knowing the result and put some bullshit together immediately after I have seen the game.
Leaping ahead to Saturday there is already much speculation about selection and the tactics required to beat the All Blacks. Selection first and what would I do. I would leave the 10 to 15 unchanged. They all did enough to keep their place. I would take the risk and start with Rhys Webb and have Conor Murray on the bench. Rhys Webb is like the annoying kid in the playground. The one who gets up everybody's nose because he is a skillful little b'stard but also horribly aggressive with it. He winds you up then takes advantage. He is also very quick around the contact area with a snappy pass. The front row is unchanged as are the boys on the bench. If Jamie George is injured then Best onto the bench with Ken Owens starting is my view. Maro Itoje will start. Put half a crown on that as a certainty. What is uncertain is who will be alongside him. I would be tempted to go with Alun Wyn Jones, but I would wouldn't I? If Lawes has a good game then he could go straight in with Jones on the bench. In the back row I would go Warburton, O'Brien and Faletau.
To the bench. Front row as is as already stated. Joseph in for Halfpenny, Murray and Sexton, Jones/Lawes, Stander. For the record I haven't gone for Haskell. He has played well and has the aggressive attributes needed, but, and it is an important but, he is prone to ill-discipline giving penalties away at the breakdown and in other contact areas. That rules him out in my book. I will review my thoughts after tomorrow's game.
I will look at the tactical changes required on Wednesday.
Wellington, a fantastic city with the 'cake tin' being an amazing stadium right in the heart of the city. The marina and the restaurants surrounding it are great. The Te Papa Tongarewa Museum is probably the best I have been to anywhere in the world. An amazing place which includes the interactive earthquake house which is very realistic. The cable car up to the botanic gardens is something special and Wellington boasts the only Welsh Pub in New Zealand. It is definitely Welsh, not the best place we went to quite frankly. Our highlight was the steak house where they serve you the most succulent steaks which you cook yourself on the stone. Simply devine.
Back tomorrow at some point.
Saturday June 24th - 13:00
Let me swear to start: FFFNNNNNNNNN Technology. Three times I've written this and three times my PC has crashed and I lost it. Fourth time lucky.
If you were new to rugby you would have felt this morning's game to be a great advert for the sport. A fast, open game played with great skill, and up until half time a game that could have gone either way. Some of the skills on show were exemplary, epitomised by Beauden Barrett's one handed pick-up early on and Kieran Read's pass off the ground out of the scrum.
Half way through the second half I came to the conclusion that the one word that summed up the All Blacks is RUTHLESS. Give them an inch and they'll take a mile. I felt their off-loading was marginally better than the Lions and the speed the ball was moved away from contact was a fraction quicker. At this level it is fractions that count. Their speed of thought and deed resulted in two tries and again that was another difference; the Lions created some great opportunities but couldn't convert them into points.
It was a cracking game with Jonathan Davies early break setting the tone. Gatland's selection of the back three proved right both in attack and pleasingly in defence. Liam Williams break to set up the Lions first try was exceptional as was his link up with Watson for him to go on a great run. It was a shame he tried to off-load rather than going into contact. That catch when under pressure was superb and thwarted a certain try. Likewise it was a shame Williams spilled the high ball that gifted the All Blacks their third try. Minor blemishes on otherwise great performances. Daly was excellent but in my opinion eclipsed by Jonathan Davies, my Lions man of the match.
The All Blacks thwarted the Lions at the lineout by sacking the catcher and they were not the pushover at the scrum I had hoped for. Defensively the men in black were excellent and punished any wayward kicking with speed and accuracy and fully exploited the Lions penalty count.
Sexton brought added flair when he came on but tried too hard to keep moves alive when chasing the game late on. It was good Webb, who looked lively for the few minutes he was on, scored a consolation score to reduce the deficit. Sinckler made an impact which was very pleasing.
The Lions will need to look at their forward mobility which I'll look at later in the week but there were some positive signs. They now move on to Wellington with Gatland & Co. having some tough decisions to make if a 3-0 test whitewash is to be avoided.
In closing Aaron Smith was simply brilliant but Kieran Read was outstanding, a clear man of the match. Back late Monday for more comment.