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A DRAMATIC END TO AN EPIC SERIES

A DRAMATIC END TO AN EPIC SERIES

A DRAMATIC END TO AN EPIC SERIES

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So it ended with a stalemate, a result that one side will probably regard as a “moral victory” and the other will treat like a loss.

It was a dramatic end to an epic series, and at the end of it we can look back on a memorable six weeks which captivated not just New Zealand, but the whole rugby world. People flew in from all corners of the globe to be part of it, some not even with a vested interest in one of the teams.

They will not go away disappointed.

The All Blacks and many of their fans will no doubt be feeling some frustration. They were only behind for a few minutes in the whole series, scored more points and more tries, and yet twice were not able to turn a winning position into a win, which can be put down to four or five different reasons.

Firstly the Lions were very good at hanging in there, scrapping away, defending well, blunting the All Black attack and grabbing points whenever they were on offer. Owen Farrells goal kicking under pressure was quite outstanding.

Secondly the All Blacks made more mistakes than we have been used to. In Wellington you could put some down to the conditions, but in Auckland balls were spilled by players you don’t expect to see making such errors. They scored two tries, to end the series with a 5-4 try count, but it’s the ones they missed that made the difference.

There was the loss of key personnel to injury and suspension. We marvelled at the way the All Blacks last year were able to transisiton after the departure of players like McCaw, Conrad Smith, Nonu and Mealamu, but it bit more deeply in this series when the next tier of leadership took a big hit, with the loss of Ben Smith, Dane Coles and Ryan Crotty to injury and the suspension of Sonny Bill Williams. There was at times a lack of calm that a couple of those players might have brought.

The red card to SBW was a flashpoint in the series. You cannot crystal ball it, but it is hard to imagine a match lost by three points not going the other way if it had been 15 on 15 for the duration.

Which inevitably leads to the refereeing.

It would not be fair to completely put the outcome of the series down to refereeing decisions, because as we all know it swings both ways. Jaco Peyper was good enough in the first test, but the two Frenchmen were wildly inconsistent which made it hard to trust their decision making.

There was another flashpoint at the end of the third test, when Romain Poite changed his mind over a penalty that, had it stood, would surely have won the series for the All Blacks. We broke it down on Rugby Nation and it is nigh impossible to escape the conclusion that it was wrong on every level.

Poite had reached agreement with assistant Jaco Peyper and TMO George Ayoub that his decision for offside would stand. Once they established that Kieran Read had not illegally contested possession in the air it should have been all over.

Offsides in general play are not part of the TMO protocol and even if they were, it would have needed clear and obvious evidence to overturn the call, and there simply wasn’t enough.

By convincing Poite to change his call based on what he saw on the big screen, Garces acted outside his jurisdiction. Poite absolutely bottled it, and to make it worse, had played no advantage, which if he had, would have allowed Anton Lienert Brown to penetrate deep into the 22, maybe even score.

There won’t be a whole lot of sympathy for the All Blacks, because people around the world have convinced themselves that the All Blacks have had too many calls go their way in recent years. That’s what happens when you win so often.

They’ll just have to suck it up, learn the lessons and move on. They have certainly brought some exciting new talent into the test arena, and those players will only get better for the experience.

And besides, this tour deserves to be remembered for a lot more than a couple of hapless French refs.

The Lions were a lot better than they threatened to be, and credit has to go to Warren Gatland for the way he settled on a workable plan, made the tough selection calls, and nearly pulled off something most thought was impossible.

He now has two pretty good series results with the Lions, and those who saw fit to put a clowns nose on him owe him an apology.

Whether or not he becomes a genuine contender for the All Black job is debatable. Both Steve Hansen and the Rugby Union are pushing Ian Foster's case at every opportunity and NZR probably still harbours a grudge over Gatland's decision to turn down the Highlanders job ten years ago.

The All Blacks not winning will bring out the tired old “losing their aura” stories in the British press, although last time I checked the Lions are not playing in the next World Cup, and not playing the All Blacks again any time soon. A rejuvenated Springbok side in September and October, and England next year will tell us more about where they are at in true world terms.

They have some work to do, especially in their attack, which will bring the role of heir apparent Foster into sharp focus over the next few months, but with the likelihood of Smith, Crotty, Coles and probably Nehe Milner-Skudder back for the Rugby Championship they will still be the team to beat.

Finally the fans were such a big part of the magic of the Lions tour, and while the Lions army is rightly getting a lot of attention, there have been lots of great stories of the hospitality they have received here in NZ, and virtually none about local fans going feral because the All Blacks didn’t win.

There were the usual stories of people getting greedy, and some really average stuff on both sides of the media argument, but nothing to detract from an awesome few weeks, and we can only hope that these tours will continue to be part of the future.