Lions 2017: The Review

The Lions tour of 2017 is now over. An enthralling trip to New Zealand ended with the Lions winning 5 games, losing 3 and drawing 2, including the deciding third Test to end the Test series in a 1-1 tie.

Right from the moment the initial touring party was named, there have been controversies all the way through to the final minutes of the last Test. There were also a number of big individual performances, some from players we’d expect but many from players who many fans likely didn’t expect to have a big part on the tour, especially in the Tests.

As we begin to look ahead to the 2021 tour of New Zealand, I felt it right to say goodbye to the tour with a look back at what has happened this summer and a couple of suggestions as to what I feel should happen in future tours.

My individual match write-ups:

  1. Win v New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7-13
  2. Loss v Blues 22-16
  3. Win v Crusaders 3-12
  4. Loss v Highlanders 23-22
  5. Win v Maori All Blacks 10-32
  6. Win v Chiefs 6-34
  7. Loss v New Zealand 30-15
  8. Draw v Hurricanes 31-31
  9. Win v New Zealand 21-24
  10. Draw v New Zealand 15-15

The coaches

While the Lions forwards did not always have their own way in the Tests, on the whole they did seem to have an advantage in the pack. I feel that both Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree both come away from this tour looking good, especially Borthwick. Borthwick is still relatively new to coaching a top-tier nation, having joined England alongside Eddie Jones in late 2015, so if he continues to improve I think he has a great chance of being involved with the 2021 tour.

Though a couple of the kickers struggled with the Adidas ball early in the tour, Owen Farrell really seemed to improve his success percentages as the tour reached the crucial last couple of Tests, which eventually proved the difference in the second and third Tests. To my memory, Leigh Halfpenny was the only Lion not to miss a kick at goal during this tour and Dan Biggar also had one of the better kicking percentages, so I feel this shows the importance Neil Jenkins had on this tour. Will he make the trip to South Africa in 4 years? It will probably depend in part as to which kickers are in the squad but he’s certainly got the experience.

Of all the Lions coaches, I feel that Andy Farrell comes out looking best. There were a number of times when the Lions defence held impressive attacking lineups to a low number of points. In the Tests, especially the third Test, Farrell made good use of the blitz defence to minimise the effect of the crash ball on the Sexton/Farrell channel and also put the All Blacks under heavy pressure, leading to a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. If the defence had not been so impressive, the All Blacks could have legitimately finished with a 3-0 whitewash. I think a lot of teams will have been taking note of Farrell’s defensive tactics ready for when they play the All Blacks. Much like Borthwick, if he can continue to impress over the next few years I expect to see him involved in 4 years.

Though the Lions did start to score a few more tries as the tour wore on, I feel that the attack was on the whole a real disappointment. In many of the matches, the Lions left too many chances on the field, and I cannot even remember them creating anything resembling a try-scoring opportunity in the last Test. This reflects badly on Rob Howley, who also didn’t impress in charge of Wales for the 6 Nations this year.

Warren Gatland may have orchestrated an unlikely series draw in New Zealand to go with his 2-1 victory in Australia 4 years ago, but I feel there were too many controversies relating to his decisions on this Tour. I am not a big fan of Gatland, as I feel his Warrenball tactics are outdated yet he has not made much effort to evolve them. When you consider the Lions needed a late – and somewhat controversial – penalty to beat an All Blacks side that spent over half the game a man down in the second Test, you could say that Gatland is extremely lucky to not be the only Kiwi disappointed at a New Zealand series victory. There were also a number of selection controversies that were surely heightened by his involvement with the Welsh national team, as a number of times the Welsh players appeared to be preferred both in the 41-man touring party and in the 23-man squads if there was a 50/50 decision to make. Even worse was his decision to call up 6 nearby players partway through the tour – including preferring a couple of Welsh players who could not even be considered squad regulars for Wales ahead of internationals who impressed in the 6 Nations and were considered extremely lucky not to make the initial 41 – only to then make an abrupt U-turn after seeing the public reaction and decide not to play the ‘Geographic 6’ unless there was no other choice. Personally I would not like to see Gatland or Howley involved with the 2021 tour, and also feel Wales will benefit from replacing both coaches at the end of their current contracts.

While I have no problem with the assistant coaches coming from the Home Nations national teams, as this will help the chemistry of the squad, I personally feel that the Head Coach at least should be a neutral as opposed to one of the Home Nations coaches. My preference would be to have a British/Irish head coach, though I appreciate there may not always be someone with enough experience for this role. Looking ahead to 2021, Eddie Jones has already suggested that he will leave his position with England after the 2019 World Cup, so I can see the Lions looking to bring him in to lead the tour of South Africa, but I will also be interested to see the development of international coaches like Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea over the next few years.

The schedule

With the increasing focus on player welfare in an already long season, it is always going to be difficult to get the scheduling right for a Lions Tour. Without even counting clubs releasing players in the buildup to their European Cup finals for the Messy Monday meeting of the Lions squad, there were some clear problems with the scheduling of this tour.

The performance against the provincial Barbarians was so poor, jet lag was commonly used as an excuse, due to the Lions having only arrived in New Zealand mere days earlier. Considering the players involved in their domestic league finals were never going to be involved in the first game – in fact Gatland tried to not even use players who had been involved in the semi-finals either – it would have made more sense to me for the majority of the squad to fly out a week earlier, with any remaining players making the trip out once their club commitments were over.

The suggestions are that the South Africa tour will contain fewer games, and while I initially thought these games were required to help find the right 23 for the Tests, I wonder if less games but more consistently challenging could be better. I feel the Lions could also be used as a way to give extra experience to lower-tier nations. For 2021, I would love to see a game against the Barbarians, 1 or 2 against Namibia and a couple of games against South Africa A and/or a ‘Super Rugby All-stars’ made up of the best available players from the South African Super Rugby franchises.

There has also been talk of including a test against Argentina as a warm-up game. While I agree they deserve a chance to play the Lions and appreciate there probably isn’t enough of an infrastructure yet to host an entire Lions tour, I would not be against a tour of the Americas, with the main test series being against the Pumas but also games against nations from the Americas Rugby Championship (USA, Canada, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile) as this would be good international experience for teams not yet in the top-tier and would also be good to improve the hype and visibility of rugby in these countries.

Player of the Tour

He may not have featured much outside of the Tests but Jonathan Davies gets my vote. In the 6 Nations I was not at all impressed and felt that the injury to Huw Jones and poor performances of Jonathan Joseph were the only factors putting him in contention of a place in the squad. However playing for Scarlets in the playoffs of the Pro12 he looked absolutely fantastic.

Not used until the third game against the Crusaders, a head injury saw him come off in the first half but in that time he had already done enough to show that he was the best option at 13 for the Tests and had worked well with Ben Te’o. During the Tests he was often heavily involved in the Lions’ best attacking play, but he was also an important part of the defence and caused the New Zealand backs no end of trouble in the third Test. I bet Jordie Barrett is still seeing him in his nightmares!

Team of the Tests

I am basing this purely on the 3 Test matches, so though Reiko Ioane was impressive in the first Test and for the Blues, he misses out here due to his quiet second Test and his non-involvement in the tour finale.

  1. Joe Moody
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Brodie Retallick
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Kieran Read
  9. Aaron Smith
  10. Beauden Barrett
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Israel Dagg
  15. Liam Williams

 

What are your thoughts on the tour? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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