Skill, fortitude, and controversy: yet more to come

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Skill, fortitude, and controversy: yet more to come
AFP PHOTO / PETER PARKS

Hi Everyone! It’s been quite a while since my last article.

I’m sure some of you must be still recovering from a rugby hangover, after witnessing what was one of the most breathtaking Lions series in recent memory. When Sam Warburton’s squad reached the shores of New Zealand, few gave them any realistic chance of conquering the All Blacks in their own backyard – a feat last achieved over four and a half decades ago. Indifferent form during the ensuing tour matches did little to improve the odds. After a tough start, the famous touring side gained some momentum when they beat the Maori in the lead up to the first test. That gave their throngs of supporters some renewed hope.

AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL SHEEHAN
AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL SHEEHAN

Come the first test at Auckland, it was the Lions that played all the rugby at the start, but just couldn’t apply the finishing touches for all their prowess. The All Blacks created fewer chances, but made sure they came away with points on most occasions. The scoreboard at the final whistle shows a comprehensive 30-15 win for New Zealand. But it has to be said that the Lions were very much in it for a great part of that game. This encounter will also be remembered in Lions folklore for producing arguably the greatest try scored by the men in red. It started off with Liam Williams in their own 22. A dummy, a shimmer, and then a split right through the defense, with the ball eventually going to Sean O’Brien to go over. It was magnificent on the eye. But still it was to no avail, leaving Coach Warren Gatland and his team much to ponder. They had to regroup, and do it quickly.

Tour captain Sam Warburton was restored to start the second test, the mercurial Itoje also coming in for countrymen George Kruis. That definitely gave them more edge at the breakdown and the set pieces (particularly the scrum). They fronted up and lady luck duly played her part. Sonny Bill Williams had a ‘brainfade’ and shoulder-charged a defenseless Anthony Watson. As direct contact was made with the head, a direct red card was correctly shown by French Ref Jerome Garces. With a numerical advantage for most of the match you would have expected them to win. However, their discipline let them down time and again. Another piece of good fortune was to come their way as Beauden Barrett was off target with some very kick-able penalties. Eventually the much-debated Sexton/Farrell axis clicked with Faletau putting the finishing touches to a move. Another score by Connor Murray followed. It still went down to the wire, and a rather fortuitous penalty at the death just about got them over the line (24-21). This left the series at one-a-piece, with the decider to be played again in Auckland.

You could argue that with a one-man advantage, the Lions should have put the All Blacks away with much more ease. But at the end of the day, a win is a win. The pressure was back on the hosts. Changes had to be made. Jordie Barrett, was brought in, as was Julian Savea. There was also a recall for Malakai Fekitoa which raised a few eyebrows given his indifferent form. It was clear that Steve Hansen was taking no chances, preferring to go with the experienced tried and tested. That final test was akin to a heavy weight championship boxing bout – I’m talking Ali vs Frazier proportions. It was edge of the seat stuff all the way through. The All Blacks were the ones creating all the chances, but

AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL BRADLEY
AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL BRADLEY

desperate defenses were keeping them at bay. They did eventually break through to score two great tries. One was off a high kick, and the other straight off the training ground. Laumape crashed through the middle, an offload to the player running the supporting line and out wide she went. A peach of a try. Yet, the boot of the unshakeable Owen Farrell kept the Lions in the chase. And just when you thought you’d seen it all – skill, attrition, pace, and sheer brute force, controversy was also to play a significant part in the final outcome. Off a re-start Liam Williams went up to claim the ball, which was also contested by All Blacks skipper Kieran Reid. Williams failed to collect cleanly, dropping the ball forwards, prompting Ken Owens to play it from an off-side position. It immediately brought memories of Craig Joubert’s controversial call in the 2015 quarter-final between Australia and Scotland, which provided the Aussies with an escape route to the semi’s. To this day Joubert remains of notorious repute north of the Anglo-Scottish border. Referee Romain Poite was suddenly the focal point of millions of viewers the world over. Poite originally awarded a penalty to the All Blacks, before subsequently having a change of heart and awarding a scrum instead. That particular moment will continue to be debated till the end of time, purely for the many permutations & interpretations that could be adopted. a. Was Reid’s challenge on Williams fair? (had the latter already taken the space?) b. If it was an ‘accidental’ knock-on, should advantage have been played ? (an AB player was virtually under the post after that play)

Jayan Jabbers by Jayan Goonetilleke

Takes you through the Sporting arena touching on all major events..

Opinion will remain divided on that particular call, based one which hemisphere you hailed from. But as the dust settled at Eden Park both sides were deadlocked at 15-all. A drawn game, a drawn series. The ensuing scenes were almost anti-climatic. Neither team knew whether to celebrate or not. In the end you feel it was probably the right result. What this Lions series has done for the game of rugby union is immense. The global interest has just soared. The rugby loving community worldwide well and truly have something unique to experience between World Cups. The coming together of the best of Britain and Ireland to form one team, to take on a superpower of the South. How I hope to be on the plane to South Africa in 2021!

After the dizzy highs of that epic series the Super rugby season has been arguably the worst ever. To start off, there have been way too many teams, with huge disparities in quality between a collective few and the rest that have simply made up the numbers. This was further compounded by a lop-sided conference system that made an absolute farce of the play-off line up. For example, the Brumbies managed only six wins during the regular season. An appalling return, but still good enough to sit at the top of the Australian conference. What’s more, they are rewarded for their mediocrity with a home play-off game against the Hurricanes. The lesser spoken of the Australian sides the better. The ARU are now set to drop off one franchise from next season onwards, and still cannot seem to make up their mind on how to go about it with the Rebels and Force the ones on the chopping block.

The New Zealand teams had to play each other in a highly competitive conference. Each game pretty much had a derby-like feel to it. So, clearly the Kiwi sides had to really put their bodies on the line week-in and week out. The new format was most kind to the South African teams. Take for instance, the eventual runners-up, the Johannesburg-based Lions. They didn’t have to play any New Zealand team during the conference stage, but by virtue of finishing top of their group, enjoyed the huge advantage of a home quarter, semi, and eventually the final itself. Crazy.

AFP PHOTO / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA
AFP PHOTO / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

By contrast, The Crusaders had to play six Kiwi derbies, which included playing the Highlanders and Hurricanes twice. Having then overcome the Highlanders and the Chiefs in the knock-outs they had to fly half way around the world to play the Lions a week later in Johannesburg. Fatigue, jet lag, and then to play a final at altitude a week later. Seemingly impossible for most. But not the Crusaders. The most successful Super Rugby franchise blew the Lions apart from the word go, to claim their 8th title. Given what the challenges this year’s ludicrous format presented, this will go down as their sweetest success yet.

Next week, its top class international action again. Commencing with the Bledisloe cup encounter. Given the form of the respective Super Rugby sides across the Tasman, the All Blacks will remain overwhelming favourites. Furthermore, they will be smarting a bit after that Lions series and will be keen to get back to winning ways. But, I feel the Wallabies will surprise a few this season. Their players were clearly well below par in terms of match readiness during Super Rugby and the June internationals. But Michael Chieka has had his squad together for a while now, and they seem to have been put through the mill at camp. Chieka has also made the bold calls and chopped off the dead wood – Quade Cooper being one such casualty. They will be competitive, and if they do go down, they will go down swinging.

South Africa will also be looking to rise from the ashes, after a disastrous campaign last year. They beat France quite comprehensively in June, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. The French team looked like they were very much in holiday mode, and would’ve been more enthralled by the sights on safari rather than limbering up their tired bodies for a test match.

Its only two years to go till Japan 2019, and no doubt these teams will be starting to think about combinations. This tournament will be the ideal opportunity to blood some young talent, and also to experiment a bit.

The Rugby Championship is barely a week away. Almost time again to cool the beers and cancel all other social engagements.