Again a reminder, if any were needed, that a good game of rugby is one of the finest spectacles on the sporting planet, and that a Lions match takes the intensity and passion to a new stratosphere. We lost the second match of the tour 22 – 16 to a very handy Auckland Blues side that contained nine All Blacks, but even that tight scoreline doesn’t convey how fine the margins were.
This time there was no fairytale finish for the ‘midweek’ side, unlike against the ACT Brumbies in 2001, but on the basis that you can’t win them all, and indeed when in New Zealand you could well lose them all, there is hope to be taken from a much improved performance compared to Saturday’s opener when it looked like we had got off the plane three hours earlier rather than three days.
That the Lions were less potent in attack for most of the match and yet led with less than ten minutes to go proved that there is more than one way to skin a Kiwi. And it took a moment of brilliance and two outstanding offloads for the home side to win.
Even then the Lions had chances to win in a dramatic finale, but first Joe Mahler was adjudged to have crawled forward out of the tackle (a borderline call and a tactic that the Lions had employed throughout the match to great effect in order to gain yards at the breakdown) and then Rory Best seemed to rush a Lions lineout on the Blues line with the clock dead.
It is interesting where the Lions go from here, other than to Christchurch for the next match of course. There was talk in the build up to the game that the Lions wanted to play less structured tactics, with an intriguing reference to “chaos rugby”. If today proved anything it is surely that the Kiwis are better at free-running rugby than us. There were times when the Blues seemed to actually encourage us to run the ball, knowing that it was unlikely to be playing to our strengths.
It is a little like, and you may be surprised by the analogy, the upcoming Brexit negotiations – if we insist that we will do a deal rather than walk away our hand is played face up and way too easy to compromise. So it is with playing open and expansive rugby – the opposition don’t need to be ‘kept honest’ at the breakdown. I’d be happy for us to spin it wide, but only after we have committed defenders by playing directly.
It is time for the Lions in the short term, and British and Irish teams from all sports in the longer term, to stop apologising for the way we play. It’s not against the laws of the game to use your forwards. In fact, forward dominance has long been an inherent part of the game and in my opinion enhances the contest rather than detracting from it. It is the clash of ideologies that makes the Lions tours such a supreme test, and such a fascinating spectacle.
And luckily the players on the pitch reverted to type during the match. It’s hard for a lion to change his spots, mostly because he doesn’t have any – do you see? Our display was sprinkled with moments of raw power, the set pieces were solid, and the desire and determination within the front eight was palpable.
Coach Warren Gatland had already stated that the priority is the Test series, and he will no doubt be happier tonight than with the performance against the Barbarians on Saturday. However, the fact that the Auckland Blues are only the fifth best of the five Super 14 sides that the Lions will face demonstrates the enormity of the task.
The 2017 Lions are a long way from the finished article, but if we continue to progress, compete up front with the passion evident against the Blues, and have the self belief to play to our strengths there is still a slim chance we can pull off possibly the greatest victory in the history of rugby.