When the British and Irish Lions promised ‘Rugby Chaos’ as a way of combatting the All Blacks on this 2017 tour of New Zealand, no one thought it would manifest itself in fans searching the internet frantically for the playing credentials of front row forwards Kristian Dacey and Allan Dell. Rugby’s most famous exclusive club, had suddenly gone all inclusive. The decision to bring in six extra players on to the Lions Tour, based on their current location, went down as well as a Bill Cosby branded Eau de Cologne. The offence was rank, it smelled to rugby heaven.
It is a situation from which no one really wins. Those called up will have read the same column inches we have. They are being regarded as Lions, who are not really Lions. They will feel odd, hollow, strangely lacking despite realising their dearest, most closely held dream. What a kick in the British and Irish balls. All of these players are, by the way, very good. The difference between one international player and another is very small. Perhaps not as consistently good as others but still, if you played against them, you’d think they were excellent. They have been placed in this position by someone else. How they are being spoken about is desperately unfair.
The Lions management staff have taken an unnecessary battering too. Steve Hansen was able to deal a gleeful early blow in uncovering the plot. It is an uncomfortable distraction for all those on the tour. Geography has been offered up as an excuse, with decorated columnists suggesting that it takes at least two weeks to get over jet lag. How crass then to play the first Lions tour match, involving many front line players, just four days after everyone landed. How daft then to admit that this had always been the plan. That they could have taken the likes of Launchbury and Ford three weeks ago. England played four fly halves in that first game against Argentina; the second row is an area of depth for EJ’s men; why not pick 50 players to start with? Why create this mess, when it was relatively simple to avoid? Makes you scratch your head.
It also pulls focus from the real job at hand. Having convincingly benumbed the NZ Maoris, Gatland’s men have seemingly laid out the game plan for the test match series which begins next Saturday. For those of us looking forward to an MMA match up of flying elbows and Hollywood roundhouses, we need to gird our loins. This is going to be a grapple. The Lions are going to try and stay out of trouble, take to the floor, and look to apply the right choke hold.
The All Blacks limbered up on Friday against Samoa with a consummate win. They bobbed and weaved, threw neat combos and unpackaged the rather beleaguered Islanders to the tune of nearly eighty points. They are a very different opposition to the Europeans, but still. With ball in hand, New Zealand look lethal. And they will get the ball, of that there is no doubt. It will be their attack versus our defence. And you know what they say about trying defend.
I’ve watched sport for long enough to realise how tricky this task will be. Defence is about stopping things from happening. It is a negating process. Some of the most dangerous sporting phrases have defence at their heart. “Just stay in”, “Don’t lose it from here”, “Get men behind the ball”, “All we need is a par”. For it to work, under intense pressure, you need to get everything right. One brick out of place and the whole house falls down. And it only has to be one brick, for one moment. It is a heavily coordinated procedure and that involves telepathic levels of communication. Not one that naturally lends itself to a side brought together just a few weeks ago. And not just for the first twenty minutes. Not even the first half. This team needs to be watertight for the full eighty. In that lung sapping, heart bursting, breath taking final ten, this Lions side will have to keep it all in. Otherwise, it will all have been for nothing.
The Lions have to win for Gatland, for Britain and Ireland, for their legacy, but most of all, they have to win for their fellow professionals: the ones who just said yes to the call they always wished they’d get. The Lions have to win this series for the likes of Dacey and Dell. So they can tell the most wonderful story. How they became an unlikely part of the most incredible Lions tour. This is the only way it can end well.