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Lawrence on the Lions: Great Heart from Warrens Lions

By Lawrence Dallagio
QBE ambassador

I have to admit, the Lions victory in the second Test was a very welcome surprise. It was a result where everything was going to have to go the Lions way, and I must say they produced a magnificent performance.

The Test was compulsive viewing from start to finish, you just could not take your eyes off it. That is what you call top-class sport.

It was nothing short of what the Lions deserve for the work they have put in over the course of the tour, and you could see on the final whistle what it meant to all the players and management.

Make no mistake, New Zealand is the hardest country to tour. The win will have surprised a few people back home and in New Zealand as well.

As dominant as the All Blacks have been for many years, unbeaten at home for so long since 2009, it is great for the sport of Rugby to see them defeated. It does not happen very often of course, but it is important.

If we are being honest Australia do not look like the force they used to be, South Africa are going through plenty of rebuilding. The traditional adversaries have gone, for now at least, which is why this particular game and series is of huge importance. 

There was a lot of pressure on Warren Gatland and the players because he stuck with some experienced operators, and there were plenty of people wondering whether he had selected the right team and game plan to take the All Blacks on.

His selections paid off handsomely, which is why Gatland is regarded as one of the best coaches in the world, possibly even a future All Black coach!! He is not afraid to make the big decisions.

Going into the first Test he took somewhat of a gamble with Peter O’Mahony as captain on the back of some decent form. To then put your hand up after the first game and to switch back to having Sam Warburton as skipper and in the starting team shows the courage and strength of the man. Wanting to get his best ball-players on the field in Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell was also another big call, given Ben Te’o had been one of the best performers on tour so far.

What impressed me more than anything else was his faith to stick with those players throughout the 80 minutes. How often do we see replacements made for the sake of it. There must have been a lot of people shouting at their TV screens to get the bench on, but his decision not to and to keep faith in Jamie George at hooker, along with Sexton and Farrell, proved to be decisive.

Conversely, Steve Hansen went to the bench and took off Aaron Smith and Sam Cane, which if had the choice again he might not have done. That said playing with 14 men does take its toll.

The Lions showed such great heart and courage. To come from behind at 18-9, nine points down to the All Blacks - when let’s not forget it was also 14 against 14 with Mako Vunipola in the sin-bin - to come back from that and then also at down 21-14, before trying to find a way to win it and then to keep New Zealand out… it wasn’t necessarily as high quality a Test as we have seen in the past in terms of skill, but for high drama, and sheer courage, it was one of the very best, especially given the All Blacks’ home record.

Now the Lions have given themselves a shot at glory. Unsurprisingly it has been predicted that the All Blacks will come back with a vengeance and of course they will. They rarely lose one game, and it has not happened twice in a row since 1994.

What last weekend did show however is that anything can happen in a game of rugby, regardless of who the opposition are. You have to cope with whatever scenario is thrown at you.

There are things of course that the Lions will need to improve to have a chance of winning the series. They cannot give away that many penalties for starters. It was not because the Lions were absorbing a lot of pressure, contrary to what some people have said. They gave away some dumb, soft penalties as well. They have to sort that out, giving away ten kickable penalties, and they know that. Theres a very fine line between winning the physical battle whilst maintaining your discipline.

It is also worth noting the clear difference between officiating styles, with the referees in France and the northern hemisphere keen to blow much quicker to give the attacking side the benefit of the doubt. It means you have to be very accurate with your turnover game.

The average stats show when you play New Zealand with a southern hemisphere referee, you have a 25 percent likelihood of winning. With a northern hemisphere official, based on the last ten years, that jumps up to 49 percent, which is a massive difference.

That means the Lions can have no complaints about Romain Poite being in charge of the final game. He is a top class referee and genuinely a forensic detective by profession, so he does not miss anything. Technically you have to be spot on.

The Lions also reacted well given that often when a man is sent off, the side that loses a player often is more inspired. You could see the All Blacks’ determination to see the game out, but the Lions maintained their composure. In the first half they could have kicked a bit more and played the territory though.

Regarding the red card I do not think there can be any complaints. I thought Jerome Garces was strong all game, not just regarding that big decision, with the TMO trying to lead him in a slightly different direction which I was baffled by. It was deliberate, reckless and he had to safeguard the player.

The new directives are very clear. You have to remember the whole world is watching that match, not least rugby players up and down the country wondering how to tackle. Sonny Bill Williams is a wonderful player and role model, and he will look back on that and learn from it, as we all do when we do something that costs us the game.

On the whole it is hard not to celebrate the Lions’ success, given how monumental it was. However there is a Test series to be won now and the Lions will know what is coming back at them.

The overriding emotion for me was one of shear delight for the thousands and thousands of fans who emptied their pockets and bank accounts to get over to New Zealand. They cheered the team on all around the country and what a great climax they will have now in Auckland.

The team may well go on to win the series and take their place in history, or they may not, but what they have given us is something very, very special with that performance last week. Another win on Saturday and it will become something those players will cherish for the rest of their lives.