Three games into the Lions tour and Stuart Barnes’ commentary is still yet to rise above the level of mediocrity, but at least the rugby is improving. New Zealand rugby is everything that Barnes’ punditry is not: fast paced, exciting, accurate. The Blues showed us that last Wednesday when they overturned the tourists 22-16 with their electric offloading game. Ihaia West’s stunning try, which came courtesy of offloads from Luatua and Williams, had television spectators in the British Isles purring, but down in Auckland such scores are commonplace. Thankfully, the Lions got their summer back on track with a 12-3 win over the Crusaders. While Barnes tried to wrap his head around the complexity of Welsh surnames (it’s not ‘Wyn Jones’, just ‘Jones’), a strong starting 15 ground out the win in wet and windy Christchurch. A quick scour of the internet and you find headlines such as “Lions begin to roar”. Ugo Monye said that “The Lions are alive and kicking”, but I’m not so convinced.
The one dimensional playing style of certain players is becoming exposed by Super Rugby’s finest; CJ Stander looks amiss anytime he comes up against a team that plays expansive rugby. Moreover, with the absurd number of offloads and dummy runs made by New Zealand’s attackers, opponents are harder to read for defenders, as Jack Nowell kindly demonstrated for us all against the Blues. Most tellingly, three games in and we have only seen the Lions score two tries. Upcoming opponents the Highlanders have averaged four per game this season. I stand by my prediction of five tour losses. Perhaps the Lions will scrape a consolation win in the test matches, but they still have to overcome New Zealand’s remaining provincial sides (including the Hurricanes, Super Rugby’s reigning champions) and the indomitable Maori All Blacks.
This tour has already been laced with unnecessary distractions and controversy. Rather alarmingly, Warren Gatland swore at reporters after they questioned his choice of tactics at a press conference (“I don’t know why I have to f***ing keep defending myself” – perhaps because you’re the head coach of a Lions tour, Warren?). If at this early stage of a Lions tour the coaching staff are losing the plot, then what hope is there? It seems as if they are more prepared with their excuses of jetlag and explanations than with a game plan. Former All Black Ian Jones said, “It’s an easy cop out to say these guys are jetlagged. If you go down the line of a scratch side, with jetlag, you can use that excuse only once on a tour, ever. You cannot go back on that.” Complaints about preparation time and the tour schedule should not be made mid-tour. Of course, for the Lions to set off just days after the culmination of the European season, and to begin training camp with a sizeable cohort of key players missing on club duty, is regrettable and not in any way beneficial to their chances.
Barbarian teams such as the Lions need time to create partnerships and form chemistry and understanding on and off the field. But such complaints are to be made in the inquests following the tour by administrative staff, not mid way through the series by those in charge of formatting a winning side. Furthermore, the rhetoric espoused by the British media in regards to Lions selection is superfluous and redundant. Much is made of “what it means to put on a Lions jersey”. This hyperbole is besides the point. Do we think that New Zealanders don’t feel the same pride when those famous All Black shirts are handed out? The argument that the Lions have some sort of sentimental or psychological advantage over New Zealand is invalid.
It’s been an awkward first week for the tourists. Coming to terms with the electric style of New Zealand rugby takes time, time the Lions do not have, especially when also trying to mould players from 17 different teams and four countries into a single unit. But the team need to find a fast way to do so if they are to salvage anything from the most difficult of tour destinations. At least, let’s pray that Stuart Barnes’ commentary improves.