Some incisive analysis on the final Lions test including why it was the perfect draw, Jonathan Davies' renaissance and credit to Warren Gatland
The perfect draw
It has been said that a draw is like kissing your sister. If that is the case, the third test was like kissing an adopted step sister who is now a swimwear model. It was as beautiful as that situation can ever be. A game where the score and statistics seem trivial. It was 46 blokes giving everything they had. Much is made of defensive patterns, pod systems and the intricacies of the breakdown, but sometimes rugby is just about smashing the bloke in front of you and winning the collision.
There were of course some intricacies of note. The All Blacks’ quick, flat lineout certainly caused the Lions rather rigid defensive lineout to be flat footed on occasions. Sam Warburton’s work at the breakdown was immaculate and reinforced how important a genuine ‘Jackal’ is in modern rugby. But this wasn’t a day for individuals. This was team sport at its finest. No player could have delivered more. What a magnificent game.
All Blacks tweak the set piece
The All Blacks are like that creepy snake in ‘The Jungle Book’. Just when you think you’ve got them sussed, and their movements analysed, you turn your head and find that they’re probing another part of you. When we were all looking at their young backline, they decided to radically alter their set piece. Gone were the quick scrums and regimented lineouts. Instead replaced with long, heavy scrum drives and rapid lineouts.
It was the first time that the Lions looked out thought up front – not out muscled, out thought. On numerous occasions the All Blacks shunned the pedestrian nature of a modern lineout and lifters, for a simple flat throw to the middle jumper. It was genius. And another example of something that can’t be practiced in a gym or with your lips wrapped around a protein shake. Bravo.
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Hat tip for Gatland
Many questioned Warren Gatland’s selection as the Lions’ head coach. More questioned his probable tactics. ‘Warrenball’ even become a word. But the third test, and the series as a whole, has shown Gatland to be far more flexible than many thought. To level a series in New Zealand is ridiculously rare and to have achieved that whilst stepping out of his coaching comfort zone has to be admired.
The selection of Sexton and Farrell allowed the Lions to link in the midfield in a way that his tried and tested Welsh selections sometimes haven’t. His faith in Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly should be applauded, it would have been far easier to select George North and Leigh Halfpenny. Gatland seems to have taken a step away from the maulers, towards the ballers. Whether it’s a big enough step to secure the top job, in New Zealand, remains a doubt. But regardless, Gatland will now be considered one of the coaching greats.
Jon Davies is a man reborn
Looking 5kg lighter, Jonathan Davies has been the standout Lion of the tour and the deserved Man Of The Series. It has been a remarkable change in form. Pre-Christmas he was struggling to be selected at the Scarlets, during the past 10 weeks he has looked like the best centre in world rugby. Davies has always had a deadly right foot step and an industrial hand-off, but as we saw in the third test, his new weapon is his handling.
Never has he looked so comfortable offloading. His new confidence with the ball in hand is reminiscent of Ma’a Nonu’s transition from a crash ball centre to a three-dimensional player. Another 12 months of this form and execution, and Davies could be looking at a nomination for World Player of the Year.
The Lions’ experience is alive
I haven’t been in New Zealand. I’ve been watching it all back home. And anyone who thinks that the Lions’ concept is dead, is way short of the mark. Whereas this column usually leans heavily on lineout statistics and tackle percentages, here’s a different stat. My local pub, in Cardiff, sold 132 breakfasts for the third test. In a small village, in the suburbs.
Despite the understandable indifference from Scottish supporters and some in the wider rugby community, the Lions are alive and well. I’m not sure if breakfasts sold count as an official rugby statistic, but they are a sign that the Lions concept is in rude health, even if the cholesterol levels of those eating the said breakfasts aren’t.