Monday, July 22, 2024

Lions provided true test

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Unlike droll All Blacks coach Steve Hansen I can think of far worse fates than kissing my sister, which was his reaction to the drawn rugby series result against the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park on Saturday night.

However her response to kissing an ageing, wrinkly brother might be different.

The 15-all draw was a thriller, even if French referee Romain Poite did a Rainbow Warrior sabotage on a likely victory by reneging on his original decision to award a penalty against Lions hooker Ken Owens’ offside.

In fact it was a double whammy; for had Poite not blown his whistle, Anton Lienert-Brown would have scored the winning try.

It was to Hansen’s credit he didn’t whinge. And why would he want to rob joyous Lions fans celebrating their team’s shared success in completing a tour Graham Henry predicted would be suicidal?

In truth, the Lions and harassed coach Warren Gatland were far better than their critics predicted. And if part of their plan was to slow the game down and stretch the offside law, their rushed defence stymied many an attack from the men in black.

They also produced some exciting players, none better than 22-year-old athletic Maro Itoje who challenged Brodie Retallick’s right to be called the world’s best lock. He is but Itoje is a worthy contender who will only get better.

So too will Ngani Laumape, 24, and Jordie Barrett, 20, who celebrated their first starts as All Blacks with stunning performances.

It was 6ft 5in Jordie’s high sideline leap and tap down of brother Beauden’s crosskick that set up Laumape’s try. And it was Laumape’s magical offload to Lienert-Brown in a double tackle that sparked another to Jordie.

Brave under the high ball in defusing bombs, Jordie was a determined attacker who posed the biggest threat to the Lions in those dying minutes.

It was a performance worthy of Ben Smith, the man he replaced and replicated as the world’s best fullback.

It’s been a remarkable season for the youngest Barrett who had hoped to play second-five outside his supremely gifted brother upon moving from Canterbury to the Hurricanes. But with Laumape and Vince Aso combining with such devastating effect in scoring 28 Super Rugby tries between them, Jordie slotted into fullback in the manner born.

So much so that when the admirable Smith eventually returns from an inner ear problem, it could be in his former berth as wing. However given Jordie’s youth, he also needs to be carefully managed.

With two-try first test hero Rieko Ioane also just 20, selectors Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox have been handsomely repaid for giving talented youth its head.

Meanwhile they face a headache in deciding their best midfield combination after making Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty their first choice for the first Auckland test.

However with Crotty injuring his hamstring and Williams copping a suspension after his ordering off in the second, Laumape earned his chance to partner Lienert-Brown and prove he’s a cannonball juggernaut in the tradition of Ma’a Nonu.

With so much talent coming through, Malakai Fekitoa was left in limbo. However he belatedly made the All Blacks squad upon playing a blinder with his strong running and fierce tackling in the Highlanders’ Dunedin triumph against the tourists.

  • Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author

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