Rugby Union was still amateur and Maro Itoje of Saracens and England hadn’t yet been born when New Zealand last lost a Test Match at Auckland’s Eden Park where this year’s Lions-All Blacks series kicks off on Saturday. All winning sequences end some day; nevertheless it’s a thought to put optimism on hold.
Some of us have mixed feelings about the Lions these days, regarding the tour as an over-hyped over-organised commercial enterprise and believing that this year either England or Ireland might have as much chance of winning in New Zealand as the composite Lions squad. Yet, as the series is about to get underway, reservations are ditched; eagerness and optimism take over.
Memories are stirred too. I’ve been recalling not only the sole Lions series win in New Zealand way back in 1971 when Carwyn James was coach and the Welsh wizards, Gareth Edwards and Barry John, were the halves, but also the 1959 tour. The ’71 tour has just been celebrated in a splendid book by Tom English and Peter Burns – “When Lions Roared”. Memories of the ’59 tour are more fragmentary but were sharpened some while back by a conversation with Ken Scotland who on that tour of more than thirty matches played full-back, centre, fly-half and once in a Wednesday game scrum-half too.
He was still a Cambridge undergraduate then, but one of the stars of that tour. The doyen of New Zealand rugby writers, Terry MacLean , thought him one of the finest and most skilful players ever to have visited New Zealand; in fact he raved about him. Another testimony was offered by the great Irish full-back, Tom Kiernan, captain of the 1968 Lions in South Africa. Asked, on the occasion of his own fiftieth cap, who was the greatest number 15 he had played against, he replied simply, “Ken Scotland, it was a privilege to be on the same field”.
In 1959, as Ken recalled, the All Blacks had a great pack of forwards, among them the young Colin Meads, but their back-play was stodgy, while the Lions had a brilliant back division. “So we tried to take it wide and outpace them. “ Ronnie Dawson, the Irish hooker who captained the Lions, said from the first that their watchword must be “speed”. There were no coaches then. So the captain decided how they should play. In the First Test the Lions scored 4 tries. The New Zealand full-back, the mighty Don Clarke,, kicked 6 penalties. A try was then worth only 3 points. New Zealand won 18-17. “Even some of the Kiwi Press were embarrassed.” With modern scoring the Lions would have won 25-18.
Today it’s the All Blacks who play adventurous, imaginative open rugby while the Lions are expected to rely on forward power, stifling defence, and an accurate kicking game. They look well equipped to play that sort of match. Defence, organised by Andy Farrell, has been suffocating on the tour so far. The forwards have both power and skill; they may gain the upper hand. Few people manage the kicking game better than Conor Murray and Owen Farrell at half-back. One can envisage the Lions grinding out a victory and young Farrell may kick goals as regularly as Don Clarke did almost sixty years ago.
Nevertheless the All Blacks always score tries, three or four a game at least. In Beauden Barrett at fly-half and Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre they have two players capable of producing magical moments, and in general the team’s off-loading and support play is by some way the best in the world. They do everything at speed, just as Ronnie Dawson said the Lions must, back in 1959. It’s hard to see them losing. They won the World Cup in 2015 and since then have lost only once, to Ireland in Chicago , of all places.
Warren Gatland, the Lions coach, has come in for a deal of criticism, both for his tour selections and for the style in which his teams usually play: the so-called Warrenball, which has players driving hard from the fringes of ruck or maul, repeatedly, again and again, in the hope that somehow sometime they will get somewhere. This is a caricature of the way Gatland’s teams actually play, but not altogether unfair. He is a cautious coach who likes a well-structured game, whereas the All Blacks aim to penetrate, outflank and disturb the opposition’s structures.
The Romantics among us – I’m one of them – think that there’s little point to the Lions unless they play with style, adventure and panache. There are matches and tournaments in which winning is all that really matters, when we don’t care greatly about the style in which victory is secured. That’s the case when national pride is at stake. But there’s no real national pride in the Lions; they’re a team drawn after all from four nations (though only three will be represented on Saturday – no Scots being required). So the argument that the manner in which the Lions play is at least as important as the result has some substance -which is why Gatland’s appointment as Lions coach yet again wasn’t greeted with general joy.
Still Gatland is a calm coach and an astute one. He recognises that you almost certainly need to score tries to beat the All Blacks, and though he would doubtless be happy with tries scored from five-metre range or penalty tries awarded to a dominant set-scrum, he has picked a team capable of playing in a more enterprising, less robotic style. The selection of his back three – Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliott Daly – is adventurous. They are all capable of making a mid-field break to turn defence into attack and of scoring long-range tries.
Gatland has also left his tour captain, Sam Warburton on the bench, and given the captaincy tomorrow to the Irish flanker Peter O’Mahony. I’ve nothing against Warburton who is a very fine player, but this delights me, partly because O’Mahony is a terrific player who embodies all that is best in Munster rugby, partly because the week before Gatland announced the tour captaincy, I suggested in the column I write for ‘ The Scotsman’ that O’Mahony would be the best choice. There’s another reason, however; the decision shows that Gatland has no favourites and is more open-minded than many suppose.
The All Blacks’ record is so imposing and there’s such a mystique about them that it’s hard to see them losing. Nevertheless the Lions have been improving and Gatland’s selection gives them a better chance than one had thought likely a couple of weeks ago. The All Blacks are still odds-on favourites, deservedly, but favourites sometimes come unstuck, as New Zealand so nearly did that day long ago when Don Clarke’s six penalty goals saved their bacon, even if it didn’t spare their blushes.