Looking back over the remarkable Lions series; where it wasn't won and lost.
Front rows, you have to say the All Blacks edged this in the tests in a reversal of their initial reverse in the warm up match.
They seemed to really try and dominate the Lions up front and did get on top in all 3 tests but not to a damaging degree, but you could also say that Lions seemed more conspicuous in the loose perhaps because the ABs concentrated on their tight game.
Second rows: a clash of the Titans, probably the best second rows on the planet on show although SA may raise a hand here. Once Itoje was picked you'd have to say honours even. The dropping of Kruis was brutal but justified as was the sticking with AW Jones, he may be an old war horse but he brings a bit of x factor to the second row. Retalick and Whitelock never got on top after the first test and were shaded by Itoje and Jones in the 2nd and third tests. Itoje came of age as a world class player and he is still 22, he could make 4 Lions series and be back in NZ in 12 years time in the AW Jones role.
Back rows: A battle royal. First test to the ABs but bringing in Warburton was crucial, he really is world class when on his A game and he is a big match beast. he relished going head to head with the ABs and his captaincy and ref management were crucial. Again the dropping of POM from Captain to out of the 23 was brutal but the results show it was the right decision, just like dropping BOD 4 years ago. Read could lay claim to being teh best player on the planet at the moment but he was up against the implacable Talupe Faletau, he looks and acts like an old school AB, no smiling no show boating just relentlessly competitive. The Lions really missed the ability of Billy Vunipola to generate ball going forward, Faletau is a different sort of player but it could be that losing BillyV was a blessing because Faletau was a rock. And if he was a rock then Sean O'Brien was a force of nature, another player coming to the end of his career and making a last hurrah, and what a hurrah it was, it was noticeable that the tempo dropped when he was injured in the last test.
The AB back row met their match, but it took a multinational back row to do it, they are still the best national back row, just probably not the force they were a few years back.
Half backs: Connor Murray finally stands alone as the best scrum half in the world a real general in the old French sense; he controls the game as much as the FH. His box kicks are perfect, he is always quick to the break down and his passing is slick, he is big and strong as his try showed, he is the complete package.
Beauden Barrett: was probably the best FH on show and yet his place kicking, which is below international standard finally cost the ABs, in this case probably a 3:0 series win. He actually kicked better than his average 75%vs71% but the ABS lack of trust in his kicking ability cramps their ability to take games beyond the opposition when he is having a bad day. Witness an ice cold Farrell hitting a tying penalty from his own half with three minutes to go, I doubt Barrett will ever do something similar. as I have said before most of the time the ABs can carry him for this because they don't play many close games, but when they do it will cost them.
Sexton, a last hurrah and back to his best although still with the tendency to spend much of the game receiving treatment. I didn't think he make the test side or last long before breaking, I was wrong, his 10/12 partnership with Farrell turned the series around giving the Lions 2 play makers and keeping the ABs guessing. Much of the time the ABs reposte to this set up was "Warrenball", sending big men down the 10/12 channel despite Sexton and Farrell being reknowned for being brave in the tackle to the point of recklessness, they may give up ground but you will rarely run through them. Sexton did his trade mark slow loops and still Lions scored off them.
Farrell; not his finest hour, but the options he gave at second five eight caused some confusion to the ABs and his kicking kept the Lions in the series. he was a key player despite never hitting his best form except from the tee in the last 2 tests.
Centres: You have to say the Lions comprehensively won this battle, the ABs never settled on a midfield that worked and in Jonathon Davies the Lions had probably the best player in the series. A remarkable come back for a player many, even in Wales, were saying was a busted flush who would never regain his superlative form of 4 years past after bad injuries. Very wrong. he made yards, made tries and was pivotal in the blitz defence that so bamboozled the ABs attack, rushing up to cut off the outside ball, that takes skill, speed, timing and guts.
Back 3: supposedly a strength of the ABs but again the Lions back 3 looked far more flashy in attack and solid in defence. Watson, Williams and Daly are all very fast and great ball passers and completely solid under the high ball. Once this pairing was solidified by the 2nd test they didn't look back. Again the ABs never had a settled back 3 and it showed. I think there was an idea that their strength in depth means they don't need a settled line up, but that may have been true when facing lesser teams than the Lions, it wasn't here.
What did for the ABs? An inability to overcome a blitz defence carried out by a team who will not tire and whose bench can carry on that task at the same level. There were few chances and the ABs were reduced to kicking punts into the end zone, the quality of Barrett's kicks meant they got tries from this tactic but it showed they were tactically beaten. They also didn't have an international quality place kicker. So they score few tries and few penalties.
their own rock solid defence meant the Lions scored one fewer try, but Farrell's superior kicking meant they converted more pressure into points from the tee and that squared the series.
I think some of the mystique around the ABs will have rubbed off among the NH players after that series, yes they are great but they are beatable, it is just that no team other than England or Ireland on their day could put in a performance that could match the Lions, all national teams have positions of relative weakness, the Lions didn't really and the ABs relative weakness are lesser than any other teams.
But it looks as if the gap to the ABs isn't as great as feared and that is the message the English, Welsh and Irish guys will be tacking back to their national set ups.
An interesting few years awaits
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