No self-respecting tour would be complete without some frivolous awards, so without further ado, here are RW's Alternative Lions awards...
At the end of an emotional, roller-coaster of six weeks on tour, it’s time for Rugby World to hand out a few tongue-in-cheek gongs to a few individuals, highlights and lowlights that caught our eye…
Lions ‘Mongrel of the tour’ award – Taulupe Faletau
Zinzan Brooke didn’t make many errors in a stellar career as a multi-talented No 8 but his baseless assumption that Taulupe Faletau lacked the ‘mongrel’ to be a Test Lion was woefully wide of the mark. Has the great All Black never watched the 70-cap No 8? Faletau, as ever, did his talking on the pitch and was an ever-present in the Test side, playing more minutes than anyone else, making more tackles than anyone else, winning turnovers and powering through Israel Dagg for a brilliant finish in Wellington.
The thought of Faletau and Billy Vunipola in a Lions backrow is enough to give Lions fans sweet dreams for 2021, when they will be 30, and 28 respectively. Midway through the tour, Zinzan sheepishly admitted his assessment of Faletau was a tad askew.
‘Most ridiculously talented gene pool’ award – The Barrett Family
When Kevin ‘Smiley’ Barrett, a nuggety backrow for Taranaki stopped playing, he quipped that he was off to breed All Blacks. Sadly for the rest of the rugby world, he was true to his word, and three of his boys look like being a scourge of Test opposition for years to come. Everyone knows about blue-eyed Beaudie, who can ghost past you in the blink of an eye, but until the tour started, 20-year-old Jordie was a well-kept secret.
The 6ft 5in full-back is prodigiously gifted, nonchalantly drilling a 50m drop-goal over on the half-time whistle, this after scoring and setting up a try in the Eden Park decider. With the heavier-set Scott, looking like providing sterling back-up for Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, the freedom of New Zealand can only be a matter of time for Smiley.
The ‘rugby world at his feet’ award – Maro Itoje
At 22, Itoje is hardly a newcomer, picking up a Grand Slam, Champions Cups and Premiership titles as if they were Panini stickers, but his performances in a Lions shirt have taken his game to a rarefied level that very few locks can aspire to.
Granted, he hasn’t been perfect, giving away penalties and getting overexcited, but his potential is limitless and the performance he put in in the Third Test was as influential as I’ve seen in many years. His partnership with Alun Wyn Jones looked like the master handing over the baton to the gifted apprentice. Martin Johnson, England’s greatest lock? Ask us in a decade. Maro is that good.
‘Rookie of the tour’ award – Reiko Ioane
We’re always told about New Zealand’s strength in depth, and a few years ago, Akira Ioane was expected to be the next big thing. The 23-year-old backrow is a fine player but it’s his kid brother, Reiko who has the likes of Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo looking nervously over their shoulder.
Jack Nowell will forever regret showing Ioane the outside channel and he was left clasping at thin-air as the Blues wing pulled through the gears. Elliot Daly, no slouch either, was also caught out and couldn’t catch the youngster. There are sure to be plenty more left helpless in his vapour trails in the coming years.
‘Try of the tour’ award – Sean O’Brien
The All Blacks scored some aesthetically pleasing tries, with Jordie Barrett’s arcing run after a sublime Ngani Laumape one-handed offload a highlight, but the first try scored by the Lions in the first-test will be replayed again and again. Liam Williams provided the step with 85m to go, wrong-footing Kieran Read and handing-off Ryan Crotty, before galloping up to halfway and finding Jonathan Davies to took the outside channel and put Elliot Daly into space, while running a blocking line on Ioane.
Daly slowed then accelerated to pass it back to Davies who went for the corner before being held up and turning to pop a pass to the supporting Sean O’Brien to collapse over the line. One word. Magic.
The ‘missing the point of the Lions tour’ award – Premiership Rugby
The narrative for the entire tour seemed to be apocalyptic. Is this the end of the Lions? What started this heresy was rhetoric emanating from Premiership Rugby chairman Mark McCafferty about the need trim the Lions tour down to eight games, and shorten the tour, in doing so refusing point-blank to facilitate any extra preparation time for the Lions, once every four years.
There was even the suggestion about player welfare, which was a bit rich, given they are looking to extend the season to 11 months. Exeter’s Tony Rowe and Leicester’s Simon Cohen put their head above the parapet to further cast doubt on the Lions concept in its current format and were quickly shot down by pretty much everybody. Wisely, they’ve kept the counsel for the last few weeks, waiting for the Lion love-in to die down. A wise-choice.
The ‘could start a scrap in a phone box’ award – Kyle Sinckler
There’s a character in the Mr Men Series called Mr Angry, who loses his rag at the slightest annoyance. On the Lions tour, this role has been fulfilled by Harlequins tighthead prop, Kyle Sinckler, who it must be said, has had a fine tour, displacing Dan Cole from the Lions Test squad, scrummaging well and making line-breaks like a seasoned outside centre. Still young in propping terms Kyle’s anger is a ‘work-on’.
When taken out in the air by Charlie Faumuina in the Second Test, the Lions won a penalty to win the game, Sinckler leapt around looking for retribution and several Lions had to calm him down. It is claimed he even refused to walk down the players tunnel. Sinckler has told how Graham Rowntree and Adam Jones have told him to calm his aggression but he’s clearly a work-in-progress.
‘Idiot of the tour’ award – Nameless drunk who assaulted John Spencer
The Lions tour has largely been controversy free off-the-field, which is somewhat surprising given the 25,000 Lions tourists could fill Auckland harbour with the amount of beer they’ve guzzled since the tour started.
However, one New Zealander who’d clearly over-indulged the craft beer decided to dish out a few crass comments to 69-year-old team manager John Spencer in a restaurant and was even said to have pushed him. Not clever at all. Go and pick on Alun Wyn Jones next time, tough guy!
The ‘class is permanent’ award – Jonathan Davies
Jonathan Davies finished the Lions Series in 2013 joking that he felt like public enemy number one having replaced the deified Brian O’Driscoll for the final Test, and coming into the 2017 Tour, there were enough naysayers saying Davies had lost his mojo as he struggled to adjust to life back at the Scarlets after a two-year French sojourn. No matter.
The 29-year-old from Bancyfelin finished the season like a Maserati with the Scarlets and morphed into a Rolls Royce of centres in New Zealand, playing in every minute of the Test Series, making the most metres, offloads and linebreaks. He also put in a defensive masterclass in the final Test, tracking down a tryline-bound Ngani Laumape and executing two textbook tackles on the superlative Jordie Barrett. He didn’t make a fuss, but with six Test starts and an unbeaten Lions tourist, Foxy outfoxed them all.
The ‘I have a cunning plan’ award – Warren Gatland
When the Lions pitched up in Whangarei, in rain of Biblical proportions, they took to the field and played, well, like drains – Taulupe Faletau and Ben Te’o excluded – there were balls dropped, balls going through legs, balls out on the full and general confusion all round as they spluttered to an unsatisfactory 13-7 win over a bunch of part-timers. The New Zealand media had a field day, ‘unimaginable levels mediocrity’, ‘incompetent’ and ‘a disgrace to the jersey’, were the more polite missives fired.
For anyone who has travelled to New Zealand, jet-lag is deeply unpleasant for several days after landing and players were clearly struggling. Six weeks later and the Lions have upset the odds and drawn the Series. Who’s a disgrace to the jersey now? A cunning ruse, Gats but let’s not have the same ridiculous lack of preparation in 2021!
The ‘make your mind up’ award – The New Zealand weather
In the UK, you usually get some sort of warning when you’re going to get soaked, but in New Zealand, and especially Auckland, you can go from sun’s out, gun’s out to a full-on power shower when clothed in less than a minute. It truly has its own microclimate, so pack accordingly.
And finally…the inadvertent homage to a pop classic – The New Zealand Maori
The scene was set for a match of bristling intensity in Rotorua. The unofficial Fourth Test. The evening was foggy and as the Haka started the mist surrounded the gesticulating players performing their traditional Maori dance to rapturous applause from the crowd.
A few social media smart alecs, thought the nighttime dance was so choreographed and so atmospheric that they added Michael Jackson’s Thriller to the background, in deference to the iconic video. No disrespect meant, but it was very funny.