Monday, 10 July 2017


I was listening to the estimable Keith Wood on Newstalk Ireland's Off The Ball programme talking about the end of the series between the Lions and the All-Blacks and he said something wonderful about why sport is 'terrific' and why we follow it. 'It means a lot, and it means nothing,' he said, and how true that is.

Which is why I find myself writing this. It might have been fitting that the series came down to a ferocious last-chance drive by the All-Blacks which the Lions' defenders just managed to push into touch to get the final whistle and preserve a tie. And fitting that the ABs appeared to be arguing right to the end that the whistle should not be blown. A 15-15 tie was, on balance, a fair result, as was a drawn series, 1-1-1. The Lions haven't won a tour in New Zealand since 1971, and that mark remains; NZ haven't lost a test at Eden Park since 1994, and that mark remains as well.

But it was also fitting that the biggest controversy of the tour came when referee Romain Poite of France reversed a decision to award a penalty to the All-Blacks, with the score even at 15, changing an offside against Ken Owens to an 'accidental' offside, thus cuing a monumental nationwide whinge which began with All-Blacks' captain Keiran Read arguing and debating the call with Poite on the spot, then exploded with nuclear force in the NZ media the next day and will run and run for decades. Recall Read's words immediately after the match: 'That (the penalty reversal) wasn't why we lost the game.' In NZ, this draw was the equivalent of a loss.

The penalty came off the restart kick following Owen Farrell's penalty that tied the game. The ball had popped loose from fullback Liam Williams as he fielded the kick, and bounced into Owens' hands; after an instant's realisation, he dropped the ball. But what's interesting is that Read, as captain, was leading the chorus of protest, because when the whistle blew, I immediately assumed it would be for a penalty against Reid himself, for lurching into Williams' back as he was in the air fielding the kick. Contact is allowed only if the player is trying to play the ball; Read was no higher than Williams' mid-back when he lunged into the Welshman. He waved an arm around as if he were trying to tap the kick backwards, but the contact was not at all, uh, 'accidental'. Worse, if you watch the replay, as the equally estimable Brian Moore pointed out to me, you'll also notice that Read appears to be ahead of the kicker on the re-start; he's so far ahead that he's in front of referee Poite as he chases the kick, yet Poite apparently never notices him. Had Read not assumed All-Black invisibility, that would have been an offside penalty.

I've been watching international rugby regularly since 1977 (though my first match was the All-Blacks vs Combined Services in 1972 or 73) and trying to fathom the rules has always been a near-impossibility. I've read them, and they are ambiguous to the point of making the NFL's rule book look like it was written by Ernest Hemingway. It's all in the interpretation, and each referee seems to make much up as he goes along. When I first started watching, lifting in the lineout was illegal, yet everyone lifted. Nowadays the feed into the scrum never comes close to being straight; one AB put in during the third test didn't even enter the scrum at all.

And this is one of the areas New Zealand have a huge advantage over everyone they play. The All-Blacks are put on a refereeing pedestal: Richie McCaw spent his career entering rucks from the side without penalty. Rugby minnows are given no benefit of the doubt, the All-Blacks always are.

This is partly deserved. To me what most separates the All-Blacks from the world is their game awareness. They process the game quicker, see options, make decisions more fluidly than any side in the world. The whole country is focused on rugby, they grow up playing and learning the game the same way. Every player possesses a great degree of skill and no fear of using it. They also have a sense of the rules, and of how much they can get away with bending and sometimes abusing them.

M. Poite's decision in Owens' favour wasn't his first use of the accidental or inadverdant call. When Jerome Kaino (born in American Samoa, there's one who got away from gridiron or at least the Eagles) clotheslined Alun Wyn Jones. Despite seeing Wyn Jones' head smashed backward (he was concussed, and allowed to return to play for reasons that deserve explanation), the ref and the video official concluded that it was not contact with any force (!) and that it was a legitimate attempt to tackle within the laws, although Kaino's fist remained closed and arm remained stiff throughout. The clothesline was banned in American football back in the Night Train Lane days. Given that Kaino had been caught (but not penalised) for late hits on Connor Murphy in the second-test, his standard New Zealand reply: 'Its never our intention to hurt someone outside the laws of the game' rang as hollow as it always does.

Read also said 'perhaps we were trying too hard', and that certainly seems true, given the unforced errors the ABs made. The Lions made plenty of their own, but in the end Owen Farrell and Elliott Daly atoned for theirs with penalty kicking. The game was a tactical masterpiece: the ABs reacted to the Lions' defending in the second test by widening their play, and should have had more tries. The Lions adjusted at half-time, and the All Blacks never really adjusted back. The Lions again couldn't finish at the goal line, and Farrell's soft pass nearly turned into a NZ try. It was a fascinating, imperfect, hard-fought match and in the end not marred by the officiating the way the first test had been.

The drawn series seemed to bother some people. The Sky reporter began an interview by saying 'we all know a tie is like kissing your sister', but that's always been a misleading aphorism. It was originated by Bear Bryant in 1966, when an injury-riddled Notre Dame scraped out a 10-10 tie at Michigan State in a battle of unbeaten teams ranked numbers 1 and 2. Bryant's Alabama, also undefeated and ranked no 3, remained there after the game, which irritated Bear no end, as if, when the first two runners finish level, the gold medal should go to the one in third.

I've never been a proponent of overtime in American football (except in the playoffs when it's necessary) and I'm not in rugby. These are heavy contact, physically debilitating games and after 60 or 80 minutes, a result is a result. Overtime tends to work on behalf of the 'better' team, the favourite, the deeper squad, and especially the home team. For the Lions to scrape a tie, and a drawn series, against the odds, is something special, and something that should not be overturned because some people find it inconclusive. To me, it's very conclusive. Over the course of 240 minutes, these two sides were as near enough equal as they could be. The All-Blacks deserved to be favourites, and after the first test they were overwhelming favourites to sweep the series. That the Lions fought within a hair's-breadth of winning (or indeed, losing) the series, but hung on for a draw, is triumph enough; that the Kiwis, threatening to take the whole thing right to the end, couldn't, will remain a disappointment, but in reality, it was a series they didn't deserve to lose. Remember, it does mean a lot, but it also means nothing.

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