Read what Andy Deacon had to say following the Lions drawn test series against New Zealand
I have been in and around rugby for a very long time, I have played in some big games, experienced some great moments and at the same time had some really bad experiences, mainly due to losing games you were desperate to win.
So, when the Lions and All Blacks stepped onto the field on Saturday to play, for many, the biggest game of their careers, I don’t believe the thought of a draw would have entered their minds. But a draw it was. The pride of Lions and a thrilling end to a series with the greatest draw of all time.
To me it summed up this epic tour, which had seen it all, making it one of the best tours to watch and comment on. As the Lions left these shores they were given very little chance, with many pundits predicting a 3-0 black wash. (I may add I was not one of those pundits).
A schedule that many thought would not make the Lions sustainable to even compete against the Super Rugby sides let alone the All Blacks. Warren Gatland was ridiculed about his tactics and who he had picked even before a ball was kicked. Once in New Zealand the press had a field day which required a very strong character to take which he duly did. He even had the last laugh when he walked in the press conference with a red nose on after the press had called him a clown. That did make me smile.
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The early form of the tourists was a bit shaky to say the least, but the ever supportive Gatland insisted it would take time for the squad to gel. However, time was not what he had on his side, as the tour was just six weeks long with three tests against the best side in the world. It was soon apparent the Lions were a tight bunch who would play for each other, support each other on and of the park, an essential ingredient on such a tour.
I think the coaches and management knew the squad for the test series early on. This was firmly defined when the Saturday side hammered the New Zealand Maoris, this then enabled the squad for the test series come together as a side earlier than expected. Yes, there were some exceptions with Sam Warburton the tour captain not picked for the first test with the Irishman Peter O'Mahony preferred. The Munster man never played again on tour after this game which must be hard to take after he did not do a lot wrong. The first test was all about the Lions not taking their opportunities, much like the Blacks in third test.
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The second test selection was key to the overall success of the series. Gatland stuck to his guns when many were braying for total changes within the squad, but he made a really tough call by dropping the in form Ben Te’o, for Owen Farrell. It was a decision many coaches would have bottled, but Gatland knew he had to try something different to open up the All Blacks’ very mean defence, he also stuck with Alun Wyn-Jones. The Sonny Bill Williams sending off did of course help in the second test victory but I am confident enough to say the Lions were overall the better side in the second test and would have won fifteen on fifteen.
But what the result did was ensure the third and final test was going to be a monumental game, and one that not all observers had seen coming. Gatland’s last selection was his easiest, picking the same squad, which would again have helped. The build-up was like no other, in the post-match reflection I think the hype affected New Zealand more than the Lions.
What had the Lions got to lose? From the start they were never given a hope, ask any boxer being in the fight in the last round anything can happen. Crucially though, the Lions had that glint in their eyes, a look of positivity, a belief that they could pull off the result and make history. Boy they nearly did it, with the All Blacks squandering early chances I began to think this could be the Lions day. When Elliot Daly nailed a penalty from 55m you surely must have started to think ‘we can do this’. The Lions looked comfortable in the periods of the second half, but sport would not be sport without some late drama. Referee Romain Poite, who I thought had a great game, deemed Ken Owens offside after Kieran Reid made a challenge for the ball, which hit Owens from the re-start.
At this point I was nearly choking on my bacon roll and screaming at the TV along with the 120 odd who were crammed into Cirencester’s clubhouse. Initially I thought the ref got it right, but with the Lions captain Sam Warburton asking for a second look by the match officials ‘upstairs’ it was deemed it was accidental off side and a scrum down.
When the final whistle went I was not alone in thinking a drawn series was a great result. Many felt there was some unfinished business but after all this Lions squad had to manage through the six week tour, I would deem this a fantastic success story.
Highlights for me: Sean O’Brien’s wonder try, the interaction between the Lions players and supporters after games was fantastic, Gatland wearing a red nose into the third test post-match press conference and the Lions social media posts, especially after the last game.
Disappointments were: Ross Moriarty leaving the tour early through injury, the wonderful All Blacks captain Kieran Read receiving his cap for reaching his century of caps with only the Lions supporters left in the stadium to see it as he deserved more respect from the All Black supporters and the ‘geography six’.
Saturday mornings will not be the same for a while and I can’t wait for four years’ time when the Lions travel to South Africa. All I need now is for the tour DVD to come out in time for my birthday.
So, this brings me to the end of my last column this summer. Have a great pre-season and I will be back in a few short weeks at the start of the new campaign.
We have got some great summer sportswear deals at Raging Bull, if you are looking, please get in touch with me @Deacs3.