Like the scene when the lights come on in a nightclub after an epic night, Lions fans are still coming to terms with the fact that it is all over and are slowly returning to a life not dictated by a schedule of early morning rugby matches every three days.
Looking back on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, it is fair to say it was a rollercoaster six weeks on the soil of the double-defending world champions.
From the sluggish and uninspired start of the tourists to the steady build towards an epic, see-saw Test series with the All Blacks, it was a tour that emphatically banished the bitter memories of the series whitewash in 2005.
While there is that lingering sense that the series is undecided, given the drawn nature of the three Test war, it is likely the Lions who will feel more satisfied with the efforts.
The All Blacks are, well, the All Blacks. The last time they were defeated at ‘fortress’ Eden Park, Bill Clinton was a mere eight months into his first term as US president, a full 23 years ago.
By no stretch of the imagination was the Lions tour a failure. Disappointment persists but that is understandable. However, pride should replace this disappointment over time. Nearly to a man, the men in red performed as we wished and willed, with heart, courage and flair.
Forget about Warrenball. That concept was disbanded following the Lions defeat of the Crusaders. The destruction of the Maori All Blacks buried it for good.
Under Warren Gatland, the Lions almost defied the critics and bookies. Almost.
After two tours in charge, the New Zealand native has not lost a series. The defeat of a below par Australia in 2013 has been backed up by a drawn series against a serious All Blacks squad.
While history will certainly judge Gatland favourably based on these statistics, just how should he be rated when emotion enters the equation?
Was he indeed a genius that almost oversaw the impossible or what he biased towards his favourites and lucky to have come away with a drawn series?
Four years ago, the Lions’ 2 – 1 victory over the Wallabies was marred by a perceived bias towards his many Welsh selections in his match day squad. Having guided them to a Six Nations title that spring, it was a sentiment that lingered throughout the series and followed him to New Zealand this summer.
When Gatland selected the injured Sam Warburton as squad captain and the similarly crocked Alun Wyn Jones in the original 41-man squad, many believed it was to be another case of ‘jobs for the boys’.
But was it really?
Yes, Gatland selected a total of 12 Welshmen from a squad that finished a lowly fifth in the Six Nations, one more than Ireland and nine more than Scotland, who also finished above Wales.
However, when it came to Test time, Gatland appeared far more ruthless in his selections. George North failed to feature, though injury sent him packing after the final midweek clash with the Hurricanes.
Similarly, Leigh Halfpenny, another mainstay of Gatland’s Wales XV, was nowhere to be seen. Even Ken Owens, who starred for Wales during the Six Nations and was regarded as the starting hooker prior to the tour, was consigned to the bench for all three Tests.
Half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar were also overlooked, despite showing the credentials that would normally have put them into contention.
Even tour captain Warburton was jettisoned for the first Test in favour of rampant flanker Peter O’Mahony, though he returned for the remaining two fixtures.
The only man who appeared above demotion was Alun Wyn Jones, despite being statistically inferior to his counterparts in the squad.
If any argument for Welsh favouritism existed this summer, it was isolated to Jones alone. Everywhere else, Gatland chose merit over mate. Even where it might have been easy to champion a Welshman, namely Justin Tipuric, Gatland chose ball carrying over tenacious tackling.
A major blot on Gatland’s report card this summer was the selection of the ‘Geography Six’, four Welsh and two Scots who were called into the squad to act as bench fillers for the latter midweek games to ensure no potential Test player had to play more than absolutely necessary.
The selection of, with the greatest of respect, a number of second string internationals, with the specific exception of Finn Russell and Allan Dell, was seen as a major faux pas by Gatland. Accusations of favouritism bubbled back to the surface. Similar cries of ‘diminishing the jersey’ were voiced.
Gatland’s resulting and admitted reluctance to use his new recruits saw the Lions run themselves ragged in the final midweek game against the Hurricanes, ultimately given up a commanding lead and settling for a 31 – 31 draw.
Had the Lions lost the Test series against the All Blacks, a fate that hung in the balance until the final seconds of their third clash, it would be very easy to get the pitch forks out and scapegoat Gatland for whatever failings could be pinned on him.
However, it was not a loss. Though it was not a win, it was a series that saw an expansive, ambitious and utterly courageous Lions squad that came together and played as one team, every man for each other and, quite frankly, it stirred the blood and filled hearts will pride.
Warren Gatland may not be everyone’s cup of tea but under his stewardship, he has delivered a series win in 2013 and now a drawn series in 2017.
Nobody expected anything other than another All Black mauling this summer. While at times the Lions had no response and could not contain their hosts, they equally asked the testing questions which the world champions simply could not answer.
While the Lions coaching ticket was more than just one man, as their boss, Gatland must take his fair share of the plaudits. The 53-year-old proved to us all that he is not merely a one trick pony that cannot look beyond his Welsh men.
In any Test series luck plays its part but you must also put yourself in a position where that luck pays off. The Lions did this, largely through the quality of Gatland’s selections and tactics.
Having proven his worth beyond doubt, this writer is more than willing to support the Kiwi for a third tour in charge in 2021 when the Lions return to South Africa.
Success there and Gatland will comfortably sit alongside the legendary Sir Ian McGeechan as one of the Lions’ greatest ever coaches.
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