Something exquisite in the execution.

Be honest, you’ve forgotten about #BOD. Or most of you have, or at least forgiven Gatland, bless’im. No Alternative (as I’m sure some vitriolic nutter might have said) following the emphatic victory by his overpoweringly big-hearted posse and given the obvious, visible, communal(?) pride and unity that made that possible. Even Keith Wood, who spoke so eloquently against his fellow member of the Hooker’s Union decision to turn away from the ‘clarion call’, must surely have recognised that within the essence of the Gatland Lions was indeed a recognition of that soul-brotherly specialness he thought had gone walkabout. Ultimately, the series victory genuinely felt like both a fabulous result and a vindication of the Lions Project; consequently Gatland emerges with enormous credit. On reflection it may have been okay to criticise his selection but not his integrity or understanding of what this marvellous touring phenomenon is all about. So Keith was probably wrong.

Probably with buts. Certainly he was right to defend – from an informed perspective – this Lions Brotherhood thing, the handshakes across the border being at the philosophical core of what makes these four year solidarity-binges remarkable. But some of us never doubted Gatland’s commitment to those finer points of Lionhood. We rated the Kiwi at the helm somewhat higher than that. We thought the de-selection of a relatively colourless (but magnificent) Irishman made absolute sense both in terms of the accommodation of the exquisite hands of Davies and of the Doctor of Wallop – Roberts. There would be no tawdry or terminal devaluing of the Lions associated with this; BOD – simply – had looked relatively ineffectual and though Davies had also been peripheral in the previous test he has looked pretty damn delicious often enough on this tour.

These decisions are even now, in the age of warm-up coaches for the warm-up coaches, built on a right dodgy cocktail of imprecise and maybe slightly more precise science. Stats and hunches. It would have been fascinating to hear what was said at the final selection meeting – not just on the BOD call but maybe particularly on the back row unit issue. Facile to immediately plump for the ‘Twas all right ‘cos it worked‘ view of this after the event, even though plainly there was a general gelling of previously disparate herculean effort(s) which meant the Lions simply would not lose. And perhaps one of the great joys of this and indeed many other sporting triumphs is that midst the passion and the punditry and the all-consuming hooha we simply cannot measure the degree to which the contest was decided by will alone. We can, however, recognise and maybe identify with something in that undeniability our lot brought to the arena. Whatever – returning to Davies-BOD – that ‘crunch call’ cannot possibly be called out as a clanger; not now.

And so to the match, in which the Lions did produce something close to a complete performance; not flawless, of course, but thrillingly, heart-liftingly complete. Adam Jones shunted himself ever closer to the top of the Knighthood shortlist, while Corbisiero thundered and generally stole the limelight. Crucially, Sexton flowered in the moment – contradicting my own most personal fear – and Halfpenny hoofed the alleged existence of pressure itself into Row 26, whilst cruising at a level of sturdy brilliance that somehow both underpinned and did that icing thing simultaneously over the entire, historically-significant cake. But what felt most remarkable was the full-court bigness and fullness of the Lions effort – something that simply could not have been expressed without a belief, a togetherness driven by the coaching staff.

A coach is in dreamland if everybody turns up and really plays. Though the match – particularly either side of the half – shifted and shimmied in terms of ascendancy, the nub of it was simply that Team Lions really worked. All of it.

From the outset there was forward domination of a sort that had (I can tell you) full-bellied fifty year-old men of a squat, squarish dimension roaring their approval. Rarely has my (cricket) club been filled with so many blokes conversant with the leeches-for-lugs branch of sports medicine. Scrums broiled, breakdowns biffed and hoiked and everywhere there was a Lion rising to the challenge. O’Brien, predictably, was troubling both the Blanketoverthepitch and the Manpossesed-ometers. Faletau rumbled and cut in his own, marginally less abrasive way… and then The Girls… The Girls cut loose, finally, emphatically. Looking back on it now, the running away with it thing towards the end was surely the inevitable result of every manjack pouring themselves so completely into the game earlier. And why did they do this? Because they knew (and Gatland, their leader and chief source of inspiration knew) what it means to be a Lion. That much was clear – and that alone is an effective validation of what Gatland did.

I have favourite moments; Davies drawing and passing with such composure and timing to release the outside backs; oozing, just ooooozzing class. Halfpenny breaking… and covering… and being everywhere and being, beyond question a somehow Roman Soldier-like Man of the Series. (Quietly proud and unflinching and oh yeah – that helmet maybe?) Corbisiero roaring – that word again! – having rolled and plonked that pill down in the first fookin’ minute, whilst we swore passionately, almost violently tribally-ecstatically at the telly. Adam Jones beasting most of Australia.

Perhaps most wonderful sight was the sharing and the celebration – all that hugging and slapping – that began so ludicrously early, like almost TEN MINUTES before the end of the game! The Series Decider might really have wafted into anti-climax had the Lions not gone into auto-execute on the Go Wide, Get Happy and Generally Blossom front. Tiredness admittedly by now offered some space and this combined with that precious flush of confidence meant tries came. Murray enjoyed his cameo, Sexton and Roberts cashed in. And The Lions, The Lions really did win.

A final thought; they won without Warburton and without O’Connell.

Swing Higher?

Australia deservedly beat the Lions in the second test on Saturday, in another match shrill with nuclear-button-moment tension. In this case, mercifully, several things;

one – ’twas all centred round a mere but alarmingly late and decisive kicking event (again!) as opposed to something major going off in Korea/Iran/someplace else the Americans are pooping their panties about.

Two – this time it was us wot missed.

Three – the nuclear-freeness of said event did not significantly reduce the weight of angst where I was watching… and latterly enduring it.

Once more, remarkably, the overtime phases of the game offered nerve-shredding possibilities for all or nothing in terms of this series. For supporters of the reds, like me, ultimately, as I/we/they slunk away to bars and hotels or the small comfort of family life, it was the bitter hard stuff that lay in wait – not the smilier-fizzier accoutrements of quadrennial glory. The redoubtable Halfpenny – he of the doe-eyes calmly fixated – had failed to hoof open a new chapter in long-shotdom; the 50-odd metre penalty he struck falling some way short of the now untroubled crossbar. (Earlier a similar attempt had rebounded cruelly to a Wallaby hand.) It was another moment of drama in a now confirmed triptych – the contest going as a result to the final match in Sydney. And rightly so.

The build-up on and off the box had been full of the usual hum and hokum; banter, bullshit and – where I was – brilliant, informed debate. Much of it around the Vunipola Question. Or maybe the Back Row Question. Meaning that a fair number had bought in to the bulk of the changes – enforced or otherwise – Gatland had made. For example, despite the fact that Mike Phillips is a son of Banc-y-felin, a thirty mile meander from base camp (in Haverfordwest Cricket Club, if you must know) not too much earache on that. ‘Mike’s ‘been bit laboured, see? Godda get that ball OUT, mun!’ No; much more earnest discussion and yes, dissent, over the perceived vulnerability of the England prop. A straw poll would have put Grant in there for starters and allowed the younger fella to rumble round destructively once the game had opened out. Strength not at issue – just too much to expect him to show the maturity, discipline and composure to hold under targeted pressure. He couldn’t.

There were awful moments close to the 25 minute mark when, following general world-wide indictment (and more importantly, concession of penalties at the scrum) Vunipola seemed destined to be unceremoniously hoiked. Then he dropped a pass… and it became inevitable. The fact that he and the Lions scrum scrambled back towards an admittedly sketchy and frankly unattractive ‘parity’- and that in fact he was not removed early – reflects admirably on the England debutant. Words had indeed been said – shouted in fact, at the alleged Englishman but the Lions effort had not started so loaded down with disbelieving expletives.

It began with a storm, in fact, or a storming, the away side looking both impassioned and focused. We thrilled and yes, roared as things clicked encouragingly over from our lot piling into ’em in the time-honoured fashion to some adrenalin-fuelled but controlled rugby of a Wallaby-threatening order.  Sadly, this lasted for all of about eight minutes before… before the magnificent free-spirits up on the screen realised this was a Test Match… with a whole lot riding.

Then conservatism and error and often shapelessness broke out, in the game at large, in both camps. It was rare that either side went through more than a handful of phases before something was up – an infringement or an error, typically. The intensity made it feel like a spectacle but maybe take that series-decider thing out and… what? Scrappy and again frustratingly bound to interpretation of what went on in the scrum and – less obviously in this encounter – at the breakdown.

In the scrum it really may be that concepts are all we have; real, corporeal ascendancy being no longer a possibility, given the shambles around engagement and the put-in. Scrums are no longer contests because a) there is no hooking b) the objective seems to be the prompting of a ‘legitimate’ claim to a penalty following infringement from the other side. Meanwhile the historically essential delivery of the ball to the centre of the melee is apparently an irrelevance, as far as the officials are concerned. Scrums now are far too often an enraging travesty; one which will inevitably lead to some explosive reaction from one of the betrayed protagonists.

The early minutes suggested at least that policing of the breakdown might be less cruelly restrictive than the previous match. O’Driscoll sensed he may be in the game and Warburton most certainly was – if not pilfering outright then genuinely competing without fear. This augured well. In fact though, the inability of the Lions to build (and literally expand) upon a fabulous start by drawing and passing and recycling effectively – adding width following gains in yardage – meant there was no penetration. And they can’t blame the ref for too much of that.

Whether this is a cultural thing with Gatland is open to debate; some mutter darkly about a one-dimensionality in the Gatland Master Plan. As though it’s essence is relatively stoppable, if you learn to read it. It may not be the same thing but there was a sense here that either by instinct or design the Wallabies had options available, even in a crowded midfield, in a way that the Lions didn’t. Davies and O’Driscoll were nullified and North and Bowe almost absent. Beyond that perhaps – they rarely looked like creating. That could not be said of their opposite numbers.

Clearly the brilliance of Genia plays a part in this disparity. He seamlessly links, he moves the centre of threat, there is that unsettling but nonetheless purposeful flux about him. He’s bloody difficult to stop. Allow him a few phases and before you know it every manjack in the backline is feeling indefuckingstructible mate. If he had a real pivot outside him you worry that the Lions would suffer a pasting – but they didn’t. The Australians won, deservedly, because they were markedly more ambitious; they offloaded and brought runners into the game – particularly in the second half. There is an argument that they had no choice but I think that’s slightly cheap. The Wallabies really took the Lions on – courageously, defiantly – and they won.

For the Lions, changes will again be made; both necessary and tactical. The potential absence of Warburton and the loss of the totemic O’Connell may possibly be the end of it, who knows? Parling is a good man but not a legend. The inclusion of a fit Tuilagi, to the squad, if not the team, seems likely, with the Davies-BOD combination somewhere between pallid and competent so far. Nothing wrong with Bowe and North – they just need the pill to carry round a bit. There need be no culture-change in the front row, merely a reversion to an experienced, workmanlike posse including Grant(?) with limited objectives. Compete; behave; stop the other buggers. Selecting the back row is more critical, you feel.

There may be some in the Lions camp pressing for a blanket over things; a fire-response or even better a fire-prevention unit. Tough, reliable types – Lydiates. The argument maybe being that an opportunity will come anyway, for North or Bowe, or somebody and that therefore no need for a Croft or a Tuilagi to go gambolling too recklessly. Issues around fitness of individuals may of course steer this debate but clearly the make-up of the back row will to a large extent control the nature and the pace and the ambition – higher/lower? – of the game plan. Whether Warbs misses out or not, the case for Lydiate is strong. So how do we juggle Croft’s classy athleticism and Tipuric’s great form and O’Briens passion and… which way, what will characterise how we go? With Heaslip? Do we just give Heaslip a bollocking and demand some more or does the thing need a revolution? Perhaps not. But it does need a spark.

In our club the chorus of ‘Swing Low’ heard mid-match was not met with universal enthusiasm. To some these Lions felt disappointingly a bit trad English – meaning inexpressive – dull, frankly. Where were the players ‘seizing the moment’, playing ‘heads-up rugby?’ Well, they weren’t wearing red.

For Gatland there is some serious thinking to be done. I don’t see him as some conservative soul – he’s better than that. But he may feel that trouble lies ahead if his side fails again to release players into space and/or take the risks associated with width. Or he may not. He may I suppose conclude that a tight, forward-led approach is percentage-wise most viable, most advantageous. Many of us would counter that so far the Wallabies have dealt more than adequately with the Lions 1-8 but found 11 and 14 less easily contained. In other words Gorgeous George in particular is nigh on unfuckingstoppable (mate.) So let him have that ball.

Breakdown.

In a lookawaynow kind of fashion, the first Test between the Shackle-dragging Crimino-brotherhood and The Lions crashed, swung its irons, walloped and all-round prime-timed our dislocated, mid-morning senses. Principally, Blokes were magnificently knocked out every few minutes – characteristically… Australians! Transformer-like Other Blokes sprinted and jinked gargantuan jinks (as opposed to JJWilliams jinks) from one state to the next before palming the ball down triumphantly. It was mega; it was neanderthal and modern and glossy and balletic in a free-form staccato-eruptive flood. And The Lions won; 21-23.

Maybe that’s all you need to know. Maybe – as, let’s be honest, I may well be preaching to the converted here – you knew all that. Allow me then to throw in some free and colo(u)rific insight, some twinklacious observo-punts re the signage as well as the ‘actual events’. Or you could piss off back to the telly.

The  pre-match tension, from the scene of my watchingment, appeared to fix upon whether or not to slurp a beer or several during the game – most of us gathered being more or less committed to playing cricket (sub-the-judice of the effing weather) immediately post the ludicrous mid-morn kick-off. (CUM ON, PEOPLE! Like how’s a man supposed to watch a Test AND slurp beer at 11 am. With a cricket match after? OK. I know. We generally do that cum Lions-time.) So there was that inane banter thing going on around Jamie Roberts and stuff whilst we exorcised the ghostly whiff of hops or worse – the need to slurp. Then boot, hussarr… it started. And so did the drinking, actually.

Within a few minutes the sustaining hunch that Sexton would do okay if he didn’t have to kick pressure kicks and that our lot would actually be more together than their lot of outofpositionflungtogetheradmittedlyflair-enabled southerners seemed a stable concept, amid the inevitable hurly. This is not to say that the homesters looked nervously dysfunctional but more that The Lions, equipped more than adequately in the Experienced and Proper Lion stakes (BOD, POC, AWJ, you cuddle up to your own, bullocking ledge) seemed pidgeon-chestedly at home in this environment. Youngs did the Youngs things, POC the POC, etc. The lads – our stupendously leonine (if birdlike) and capable and whole-hearted red-shirted heroes – did their thing with enough assurance to convince all of us and the watching world that Lions can (oof)… and will… (yowch!) lay it down… (hoiyahh!) in committed style… (aaaah) for The Lions.

Slightly more specifically, Jonathon Davies absolutely laid out Lealiifano, without resorting to malice, in 50 seconds. To his credit, the Welshman – who gave surely one of the great non-Test performances in Lions history in the game against Waratahs last week (yup, I really think it was that good) – immediately called for aid to his stricken opponent, knowing he was haway with the (presumably Aboriginal) faeries. This was merely the warm-up gig in the stretcher-fest that was to wheel its Pete Townsendesque way through the game. Kerrang!! Lealiifano. Kerrang!! Barnes. ‘Allo San Fransisco! McCabe. Power-chord after migraine-inducing power-chord, the physical intensity of the thing was taking its toll; on the Australians.  We drank to that, funnily enough.

There was much to admire and enjoy in the first period. Two tries by the Australian George North – bloke called Folau, who apparently picked up a rugby ball for the first time last week – plus a similarly dashing-bison moment from Gorgeous George himself.

Personally I was convinced the first Folau try followed a scandalously obvious in-at-the-side intervention from an Aussie prop but this was not the only moment of controversy around the breakdown. The man O’Driscoll, whom followers of the game may have heard of, quite plainly decided he needed to absent himself from these challenges following two bewildering pings; this will be a matter for ahem… discussion between Mr Gatland and the authorities, I feel, before the Second Test. In all seriousness, the ‘interpretation’ of rulings on what is permissible – or how bodyweight is judged to be perched – as players try to gather in legitimately contestable ball should not be excluding great and honourable and experienced professionals from plying their trade entirely. BOD could subsequently make only intermittent contributions for his side, something of a travesty for the contest, IMO. This issue will remain central to the series no doubt but if the other, healthier, more roaaarringly uplifting facet of the game – namely the propensity for giant blokes to leg-it like fuck through pathetically flailing defenders – persists, then clearly we are in for some wonderful entertainment.

Folau and Cuthbert and North delivered something special which drew crucially upon the moment… and that was fabulously proper sport. Tries of course can win matches but if the hapless hoofers from the SD colony had even remotely approached Halfpennyesque levels of proficiency with the boot then The Lions would have got beat. As it was, Leigh was again close to exemplary in virtually everything he did, whilst a series of probably under-prepared and possibly unwilling Aussie novices blinked up at the posts before hoiking right, left, or cruelly fell on their understandably quivering ample arse. Beale – the one with alcohol issues – cruelly exposed, kicked drunkenly wide or short or both, when the moment OF WINNING THE FIRST TEST beckoned. My Magnificent Little Pony (Halfpenny – earlier), did not.

In a finale that was supremely tense rather than classic, failures of composure and technique told – failures we might link to selection issues, for Australia really had gambled more than their gallantly stolid opponents. The Wallabies had the Wrong Bloke doing really important stuff too often. So they lost.

However, they did have the finest player on the park by some distance – Genia, who played as though pressure does not and never did exist – but even his brilliance fell short. When the shackles were flung off rather than dragged, the Aussie back line did look a threat, even in midfield, in a way that BOD and Davies rarely did. Much of this was to do with Genia’s comfort and expressivity. Phillips by contrast looked upright and sometimes laboured; his place now more closely under threat from t’other Youngs, perhaps? The Lions came through thanks to bursts of invincible running amid general good (but conservative) stewardship of the line-out and acceptably tidy work from Sexton. They will want more and they may need it.

With the result undecided ’til virtually the last kick and the intensity relentlessly freakish, this First One was damn competitive. Hence, I suppose the attrition on Australians. (Did I mention that?) The Lions are strong but not decisively so – not yet. Two tries conceded. If the Wallabies can truly and effectively re-group they have already shown that they have real firepower – likely the equal of the boy North, even. What we need as lovers of the game is both for the big guns to be unleashed and for the less spectacular contests to be fully played out rather than watch players tiptoe around the referee’s interpretation of the rules. Players/viewers don’t want to obsess about the flippin’ breakdown; they/we want to see it happen – Warburton or BOD v their lot, in action!

It’s simply not possible to play through the breakdown when your movements, your instincts are compromised by those fears. BOD’s withdrawal from this key part of the game was maybe, on reflection, notable as opposed to central to the result – fortunately. But when things get tight… phew, you wanna grab that ball, right? And that might cost. In the fury and the shades-of-grey it became heart-stoppingly close. But as O’Driscoll said after – we’ll take an ugly win. Cheers.