Doctor Know: Thrill of the Lions tour

26 June 2017 - 08:14
Elton Jantjies of the Lions. File photo.
Elton Jantjies of the Lions. File photo.
Image: Quinn Rooney

The Lions tour of New Zealand has been hyped to the point of annoyance at times, yes, but the World Champions against a "best of" team from the newly resurgent Home nations (England matching New Zealand's winning record under Eddie Jones, Ireland playing at a very similar level) is a sporting milestone.

The match lived up to the excitement - the quality of the first half in particular was extraordinary.

New Zealand somehow played adventurous rugby in a channel about 10m wide, and the Lions barely put a foot wrong, except at the two extremities of the field, failing to score when they should have, and letting New Zealand in after a concentration lapse.

Some hate the concept of the Lions tours, decrying them as tacky and self-aggrandising marketing campaigns.

They perceive any defeat by the Lions as a sign that the concept is a failure and, weighed up against cost and a congested calendar, argue that a Lions tour's days are numbered.

I think Lions tours are tremendous, in part because they're scarce - 12 years pass between tours to a given country - and because they offer the hope of transcendent rugby.

Even if it never quite materialises, hope is a compelling hook.

Achieving such transcendence is, of course, no easy task, although the first 40 minutes in Auckland came close on Saturday.

In the professional era, finding the time required to mesh together even a world-class group of players into a cohesive team is a significant challenge.

The end of the European season comes just too close to the start of a Lions tour, and the 2017 version has showed clearly how this plays out.

From their very poor, disjointed and jet-lagged first performance, they have improved steadily and are now, in fact, a very good team. One that, I dare say, would comfortably beat Australia and who would have given the Springboks much more to think about than a tepid French side.

Professionalism is not all bad - some aspects do help the integration of players from different teams.

The conditioning levels of the players are very similar, and being professional means they share a very high level of technical competency.

So in theory, learning new plays and combinations is a matter of small adjustments, not entirely new skills.

This doesn't mean it can't go badly wrong.

The last time the Lions toured New Zealand was in 2005, with Sir Clive Woodward at the helm and, by all accounts, he over-managed the team to the point of paralysis.

One account told of a playbook the thickness of a few encyclopaedias, which contained all set phase moves from each of the four unions. Players had to memorise them all.

That led to confusion, especially when it came to decision-making on the field.

Lineout calls, for instance, were chaotic. No clear lines of leadership and communication had been agreed upon, and any skills were suffocated by the complexity.

The point is that professionalism is a double-edged sword, and Woodward erred on the side of over-professionalism.

It seems to me, at least from outside, that the Gatland-led 2017 Lions have found a much better balance in this regard.

One insurmountable problem for the Lions, however, is that their tactical approach and "evolution" as a team plays out step by step in full view of the opposition.

The rush defence, the combinations, the kicking game, set phases - every weapon in the Lions' armoury is incrementally revealed, and any decent coach and his team of analysts would create, test and refine tactical approaches to negate the Lions' strengths, something we saw play out at the weekend.

Whether the Lions have any answer to that remains to be seen. I don't think any team, perhaps barring England at home, would be able to negate the quality and variety of what New Zealand present.

Certainly, even a well-moulded Lions side face an uphill battle, and 3-0 looks likely. Hopefully, it won't signal the end of that hope for transcendence - South Africa are next up in 2021.