All Roads Lead To The North Now For Gatland’s Lions

The British&Irish Lions brief trip to New Zealand’s South Island is over, now it’s back to the North  Island as the Test countdown continues. In his latest column, Geraint Powell looks at why the tour schedule has had to change and sees where the Lions stand four games into the Tour after Tuesday’s defeat to the Highlanders..

Nothing has more highlighted the changing nature of a modern British & Irish Lions tour in the professional era than the truncated sojourn to New Zealand’s South Island for matches against its two Super Rugby regional franchises, the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Highlanders in Dunedin.

In and out, both matches played over 4 days, and the rest of the tour exclusively a North Island affair and event. These include the three Test matches, two at Eden Park in Auckland sandwiched in between the 2nd Test match in Wellington.

The days of Lions matches against South Island provincial sides and combinations in Invercargill, Greymouth, Timaru and Blenheim are now long gone, an accident of history, with no Lions Test match played in Dunedin since 1983.

Carisbrook, “the House of Pain”, in the Scottish south of New Zealand is no more. Demolished and replaced by the under roof Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2011 but neither venue would have been suitable for a modern Lions Test, too small when Eden Park with temporary seating now offers more than twice the capacity of either (old or new) Dunedin venue.

The Lions commercially provide New Zealand rugby with a war chest to retain players from the clutches of rapacious Northern Hemisphere teams fuelled by broadcaster and broadband conflict, so every New Zealand dollar has to be squeezed out of the tour. Welcome to professionalism, sentimentality, tradition and uncommercial heritage in decline everywhere.

And, for the first time since 1908, no Lions Test Match in Christchurch on this tour. Lancaster Park, venue for the 1st Lions Test in 2005 and the home of Cantabrian rugby, stands derelict. It was damaged beyond repair by the 2011 earthquake, scheduled to be finally demolished later this year.

The Canterbury province and Crusaders regional franchise since 2011 tenants at small Rugby League Park, with only vague hopes of a future enclosed new city centre stadium in time for the next Lions tour.

Christchurch is still a recovering city, with other more urgent priorities.

The Crusaders might be the region for the entire upper South Island, but they operate heavily out of the Canterbury provincial environment. The winners of 8 of the last 9 ITM Cups below Super Rugby, worthy successors to that legendary Ranfurly Shield defending Canterbury provincial team of 1982-85 coached by Alex “Grizz” Wylie and captained by Don Hayes.

A squad that included much of New Zealand rugby’s later “brains trust”, including (the late) NZRU Chairman Jock Hobbs, current All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith and former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans.

After a lacklustre opening 13-7 win against the Provincial Barbarians at Whangarei, the chaotically farcical pre-flight Lions preparation combining with jet lag, the Lions fell to the Blues 22-16 at Eden Park.

It was a moment of individual brilliance from Blues replacement Ihaia West that decided the match, with wing Rieko Ioane also providing a constant threat and scoring a try. On the South Island leg of their tour, the Lions got the show back on the road in Christchurch only to somewhat come unstuck again in Dunedin.

A Crusaders side, fully loaded apart from All Blacks (skipper) Kieran Read and centre Ryan Crotty, were literally strangled to death 12-3 in a match without any tries. Core All Blacks forwards such as Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks and Joe Moody present and suffering defeat, a message sent.

Unbeaten in 2017 Super Rugby, Scott Robertson’s “Saders” could never get their high tempo aerobic offloading game going and struggled to adapt to a number of interpretations of French referee Mathieu Raynal and then compounded by a failure to take their kickable penalties and keep the scoreboard ticking over.

The Lions won the aerial battle, Conor Murray in particular tormenting the Crusaders defence with his hanging kicks. Murray and Owen Farrell increasingly looking the likely Test team half-back pairing, barring injury.

The second row combination of Alun Wyn Jones and George Kruis worked effectively together, Taulupe Faletau all but securing the Test No.8 jersey. The downside being unfortunate head injuries to Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Davies, both failing their HIAs and Hogg subsequently ruled out for the rest of the tour as a result of his accidental collision with Murray.

There was obvious Lions management relief in securing the win before heading further south from Christchurch, a psychologically important scalp obtained.

If the Lions team that faced the Crusaders had the feel of the core of the Test team, the Lions team that was selected to play the Highlanders very much had the feel of the core of the emerging dirt-trackers.

And the midweek dirt-trackers matter so much on a Lions tour in maintaining momentum, for they are needed to face down the Chiefs a few days before the 1st Test and the Hurricanes between the 1st and 2nd Tests.

The dirt-trackers, particularly a few disillusioned Scottish forwards, most notoriously gave up in 1993 and meekly surrendered to Hawke’s Bay and to a Waikato province that included one Warren Gatland at hooker.

It did nothing to catapult the Lions into the 3rd Test, the series then lost 2-1.

With the All Blacks playing Samoa on Friday, with the Maori All Blacks playing the Lions on Saturday, with a few injuries, the Highlanders missing around 9 players as a consequence (including Aaron Smith and Ben Smith with the All Blacks), the thinking was that a somewhat midweek looking Lions Test team should still be too strong for Scott McLeod’s “Landers” (with head coach Tony Brown away coaching Japan). Alas not.

There were tries from Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour and a fit again skipper Sam Warburton in an entertaining aerobic match, but the Lions were unable to see out a 22-13 lead and eventually succumbed 23-22.

The penalty count against the Lions ended at 12 and the turnovers conceded count at 22, statistics that would spell disaster if repeated against the All Blacks in a Test match, the scrum wobbling at times and the match turned with the Lions conceding a try from a driving lineout maul. There was no reprieve, when a late long range penalty from Elliot Daly fell agonisingly short.

The perennial issue of hemisphere refereeing interpretations returning to the forefront, the Highlanders much happier under Australian referee Angus Gardner than the Crusaders were under a French referee.

The Test series focus will inevitably if sadly be upon the interpretations of South African Jaco Peyper and Frenchmen Jerome Garces and Romain Poite. It is an issue across the modern game, the French Top 14 radically different in style from SANZAAR’s Super Rugby.

As the brief South Island leg ends, the Lions now return north to Rotorua for the Maori All Blacks and the Lions team selection which will provide the real clue as to the Lions 1st Test selection.

Any Lions player selected for the Chiefs in Hamilton next Tuesday, 4 days ahead of the 1st Test in Auckland, all but confirmed as a non-Test dirt-tracker barring later injuries or Test team disaster.

The Lions would have hoped to have been in better shape than 2-2 at this stage but, when all said and done, the regional Super Rugby defeats will be forgotten if the Test series is won.

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