Ok, first of all an apology for the lack of a blog post last week. I’ve been on holiday in southern Spain for the last ten days and as much as Lions glory has been at the forefront of my mind, trying to find a spare writing hour in between the copious amounts of tapas and forty degree heat has been difficult. I know – it’s a hard life. But you can forgive me for needing a break after that extraordinary third Test against the Wallabies on Saturday 6th July. It was a game I feared I wouldn’t see as I boarded the plane at Gatwick but thanks to some extensive research by my girlfriend (this act alone means she’s a keeper), we found a bar in Seville that was showing the Lions decider. At midday (Spanish time) on the dot, I sat down with a select group of ex-pats and tourists at the Merchant’s Malt House. The air conditioning may have been on full blast, but the gathered were certainly sweating just after half time as the Aussies clawed their way back to within three points. Had the tide turned? Did the Lions have anything else to give? Had the much-debated selection by Warren Gatland backfired? Mercifully, the gap soon opened again thanks to some moments of magic by the Men in Red and in particular ‘Man of the Series’ Leigh Halfpenny. The fact that the game was over with fifteen minutes left to play was testament to an outstanding team performance – the likes of which you very rarely witness. Those of us gathered at the Malt House were ecstatic come the final whistle (as I’m sure all Lions fans were) and needless to say that particular Seville pub will always have a special significance for me – ‘the pub where I saw the Lions clinch the series’. But with the dust now beginning to settle, what does this totemic result mean for the players, coaches and British and Irish rugby as a whole? This week’s post looks at the future of rugby in the northern hemisphere and why it’s brighter than the Andalucían sun.
On my return to Blighty, I watched a replay of the Sydney game in-between the final day’s sessions of the Ashes first Test (Australian sport’s doing really well at the moment isn’t it). Watching that second half again it was clear how the Lions avoided the pitfalls of the previous week and kicked on to record a memorable win. Firstly, dominance in the scrum continued for the tourists which resulted in a pressure-relieving penalty on 52 minutes. A lot of the credit here has to be given to this year’s ‘bolter’ Alex Corbisiero – a man who didn’t even start the tour but became crucial to the Lions hopes of success. Secondly, the tactical kicking of Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies was very impressive as was the contribution of Jonathan Sexton who (although defensively shaky in the first half) came up with the territorial goods when it mattered. These kicks prevented the Wallabies from building on the momentum they had created and, unlike in the Melbourne Test, allowed the Lions to play in the right areas of the park. Finally there were those moments of rugby class that turned a win into a rout and, in particular, Halfpenny’s deft running for the second and third tries and Jamie Roberts’ great angle following Conor Murray’s delicious pass for the final score.
As a result of the 25-point win, the majority of players within the squad will undoubtedly see their stock rise while some have confirmed themselves as true superstars of world rugby. Their respective Aviva, Pro 12 and Top 14 teams will certainly feel the positive effect of having victorious Lions return to the club fold. Northampton Saints in particular will be absolutely delighted with their pre-tour signings of Corbisiero and George North. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the likes of Ospreys, Leicester Tigers, Cardiff Blues and Leinster see an upturn in fortunes given the achievements of a number of their players. That is, of course, if they can keep hold of their prized assets. The era of the big-spending French clubs does not seem to be ending anytime soon and the Class of 2013 are now well and truly in the shop window for the likes of Toulon, Toulouse and Racing Metro (who can already boast three Lions on their books – Roberts, Sexton and Dan Lydiate).
The 23 players that formed the matchday squad for the final Test obviously owe a debt of gratitude to the coaches who selected them and, in particular, Warren Gatland. I had originally planned to call this week’s post ‘Glory for Gatland and his massive Gonads’ such was the gamble that the Head Coach made in his final Test selection – a gamble that was subsequently vindicated on a spectacular scale. In truth, dropping Brian O’Driscoll wasn’t that difficult a call (Jonathan Davies had been the form centre of the tour) but such is the legendary status of ‘BOD’ (a legend written with a significant Lions sub-plot) that not selecting him was always going to ensure Gatland had nowhere to hide after the final whistle. In the end, all of Warren’s selections came good: Captain Alun-Wyn Jones was outstanding and his ‘lead from the front’ attitude was reminiscent of Martin Johnson at his best; Sean O’Brien was tenacious, ferocious and bulldozingly brilliant at No. 7; Richie Hibbard was a mobile brick wall (one which George Smith hit at full pelt); and, finally, Davies more than justified his selection with an excellent showing. At the post-match press conference, Gatland was aware of the fine line he had tread saying, “Sometimes you have to put your balls on the line”. In masterminding a series win Gatland has turned a potential castrating by the English and Irish press into a career defining moment. He will now be regarded as one of the most sought-after coaches on the planet. Interestingly, the Kiwi has not ruled out the possibility of coaching the Lions again in 2017. I suspect Warren Gatland will be involved in that series but as coach of the opposition – the All Blacks. The New Zealand Rugby Union must surely be looking at him as a contender post 2015 World Cup.
Which brings us to the future of our national sides: following the victory, assistant coach Rob Howley said that the win would benefit all four home nations. I would have to agree. Beating Australia in their own back-yard will have provided a significant psychological fillip in the build-up to the World Cup. In the past, northern hemisphere countries have had little success against SANZAR opposition to the point where we have often resigned ourselves to defeat before the game has begun. With the exception of a notable victory for the English against the Kiwis last November, games between northern and southern hemisphere sides have, in recent history, been narrowly won by the teams from the south. The Lions victory Down Under could well see that tide begin to turn for all four of the home unions. Yes, there were very few Scots on tour but Maitland, Hogg, Grant and Gray can bring an added confidence to an improving squad that narrowly lost away to South Africa last month. They also have the excellent Vern Cotter coming in as their new coach at the end of next season. The Irish also have a quality coach coming in (Joe Schmidt) while an exciting young team is beginning to emerge. It may be the end for the BODs and O’Connells of this world but with Murray, Sexton, Zebo, Healey, Heaslip and O’Brien amongst their ranks they will fear nobody.
Of course the two nations that will probably benefit most from this Lions experience (both from a player and coaching perspective) are Wales and England. The English are a team that are learning and (more importantly) improving very quickly on the international stage. While coaches Rowntree and Farrell were plotting a Wallaby downfall, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster was overseeing an impressive series win against Argentina. Throw in a whole batch of exciting young players (and home advantage) and England can go into 2015 with great confidence. Given the make-up of the squad and coaching team, Wales probably had the most to lose from this Lions tour but they’ve probably ended up with the most gained. The players have finally shooed the pesky Wallaby of their back (after six attempts in the last two years) and have gained plenty of big-match experience in the process. More importantly, Wales can now call upon the undivided attention of coach Gatland and (as with England) will look upon their Antipodean World Cup opponents with considerably less trepidation.
With the French national side continuing on their path to self-destruction (they were whitewashed against the All Blacks this summer), the gauntlet is now thrown down to the home nations to grasp the golden opportunity of a Rugby World Cup on British soil and to finally wrestle rugby dominance from the southern hemisphere. The next chapter of the saga begins this autumn when Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa all visit our respective shores. As the scarlet of the Lions is swapped for the white of England, the navy of Scotland, the green of Ireland and the red of Wales, let’s keep a bit of that bite from a glorious summer of rugby.
The blog will return in two weeks.