British Isles. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13
THE SWITCHBACK ride is over, the Lions ultimately plunged into the depths by the best New Zealand performance since they won the 1987 World Cup final. If the tour has taught anything, it is that in mental toughness, in the ability to respond in crisis, the All Blacks are a class above and a breed apart.
To their eternal credit, the Lions had done precisely the same when levelling the series in Wellington. But the deciding Test at Eden Park required the same levels of urgency, commitment, passion and pride - and, compared with an All Blacks side who had been roundly condemned here all week, the Lions were wanting in all four.
In terms of quality of player, you could contend that the Test Lions were comfortably as good as the All Blacks, and as Geoff Cooke wistfully remarked: 'We were that close to being written up as one of the great sides in history.' By 'that close' the manager meant the 30 seconds that remained when Grant Fox kicked the penalty that won the first Test.
But that, too, is history. The All Blacks responded to every area of Lions superiority in the second Test by first conducting a painstaking analysis, then working out a revised strategy and finally putting it into practice. 'This week has been the most intense I've ever known in my international career,' Grant Fox, an All Black for eight long years, said.
In its quintessential way, it was quite superb - just the sort of thing you might expect of Ian McGeechan, in fact. The Lions coach has made New Zealand rugby, and how to overcome it, a lifetime's study and, at the very last, he failed again.
His players knew, from narrow defeat in Christchurch as well as from handsome victory in Wellington, that they had the beating of the Blacks, but in the end that turned out to be a weakness rather than a strength, because the sheer desperation that had swept them through the second Test was no longer there.
Instead it had passed to the All Blacks. 'Their very existence depended on it,' McGeechan said in acknowledgement, perhaps, that rugby here is, and probably always will be, more a matter of life and death than it is back in the British Isles. Still, there were fleeting moments when the Lions were in command and they had an awful lot of the game to end up with a 17-point deficit.
They held a scarcely credible 10-0 lead after 25 minutes and needed no more than a solid, sensible, error-free quarter of an hour before half-time. The All Blacks were so wound-up that they lost their discipline and even when they were well on top later in the match they were often unable to control themselves, with Sean Fitzpatrick, the captain, by far the worst offender.
'It's obvious I have to do a lot more work on my French,' he sarcastically told Patrick Robin, the referee, who was warmly welcomed when he arrived in New Zealand but has subsequently been the target of endless barbs for his handling of the Wellington and the Auckland Tests.
In victory Laurie Mains, the coach, and Fitzpatrick could no longer conceal their dissatisfaction, perpetrating the preposterous notion that Robin let the Lions get away with all manner of illegalities in killing ruck ball. The truth is that the All Blacks were so squeaky clean that he penalised them far more than the Lions for this very offence.
Indeed with the Lions well beaten and All Blacks pride dramatically restored, the gracious hosts finally articulated what they really thought about British Isles rugby: so negative that it was not particularly enjoyable playing against it.
'We knew that if we could play positive rugby in the manner we've attempted for some time, and play it with enough tempo, it would overcome the negative tactics we've encountered in this series,' Mains said. He received an instant endorsement from his captain: 'It hasn't been the most enjoyable series. The Lions have been very negative. It's clear to anyone that they've been negative at the ruck in terms of killing the ball.'
Coming from All Blacks, this was a bit rich, not simply because they have never been averse to killing rucks as and when it suits but also because on Saturday the Blacks' main idea of 'positive' rugby was for Fox and sometimes Jon Preston to stick the ball as high as they could in the air. This is not to complain; if the Lions had done the same and won as conclusively, that would have been all the justification they needed.
More to the point was that, after midweek tuition from Andy Haden, that past-master of All Blacks gamesmanship in the darker arts of line-out play, the Blacks nullified the advantage that had been so important to the Lions in Wellington. The New Zealand pack also cleared the ball much more quickly in the loose, giving their back row vastly more scope to act as wide-out attackers and their backs far more room to stretch the Lions wide.
That this seldom happened was its own testimony to All Blacks tactics, their negativity or otherwise being in the eye of the beholder. As it turned out, it was the Lions who were to make greater use of the open spaces, even if by then the margin had widened so far that caution perforce had to be abandoned.
While the Lions still had some control, Scott Gibbs capitalised when a loose ball ricocheted off Frank Bunce's knee and into his grateful hands. The try should have been the start of something big; instead, it was the end. Within eight minutes the All Blacks had a match-winning lead, Bunce scoring when the impressive debutant Lee Stensness placed a perfect chip into a yawning gap behind the Lions' defensive line, and Fitzpatrick bullocking over after repeated thrusts by his fellow-forwards.
Somehow the Lions restricted New Zealand to one second-half try, Jon Preston scoring it by arcing round Dean Richards, who hesitated between taking Preston and John Kirwan. But Fox performed his usual task of steady accumulation to pass 600 points in Tests, and though Gavin Hastings' eight points were sufficient to create a Lions series record of 38, in the melancholy context his achievement seemed utterly insignificant.
New Zealand: Tries Bunce, Fitzpatrick, Preston; Conversions Fox 3; Penalties Fox 3. British Isles: Try Gibbs; Conversion Hastings; Penalties Hastings 2.
NEW ZEALAND: J Timu (Otago); J Kirwan (Auckland), F Bunce (North Harbour), L Stensness, V Tuigamala; G Fox (all Auckland), J Preston (Wellington); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (all Auckland), I Jones (North Auckland), J Joseph, A Pene (both Otago), M Jones (Auckland). Replacements: M Cooksley (Counties) for I Jones, 19; Z Brooke (Auckland) for M Jones, 73. Temporary substitute: M Cooper (Waikato) for Timu, 55-58, 75-78.
BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), J Guscott (England), S Gibbs (Wales), R Underwood; R Andrew, D Morris (all England); N Popplewell (Ireland), B Moore, J Leonard, M Johnson, M Bayfield, B Clarke, D Richards, P Winterbottom (all England).
Referee: P Robin (France).
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