A week has now passed and the dust has nearly settled on the Lions Tour. Many column inches have been filled, many blogs completed, many a podcast has been recorded let alone the thousands of social media postings. What else is there left to say ? Well, maybe this could be the final word and the last tour player ratings you will read.
Whatever anyone might say, it was a glorious tour which captured the imagination of the rugby world and not just those from the host nation or the home nations, except maybe those from north of Hadrian’s Wall, to whom the tour unfortunately seemed to bypass.
This was clearly not ideal as the Lions are supposed to represent all four home nations yet, other than Hogg, whose subsequent injury was desperately unfortunate, the other two Scots selected (Seymour and Laidlaw) only seemed to be chosen in the interests of fairness, as neither of them were ever likely to be in contention for a Test spot. However, sometimes things go like that. Rugby, indeed life, can be cruel but on occasions that’s what happens. This is only rugby though and not life, so the ‘feeling-hard-done-by-Scots’ just need to accept it and move on. What goes around comes around and the Scots have contributed famously to previous Lions tours and will do so again.
However, it does show what splendid results Vern Cotter achieved as the Scotland coach with the resources at his disposal and it does appear that his removal may have been a little premature. Anyway, that’s a story for another day and the proof of Gregor Towsend’s elevation will be in the post xmas pudding.
In terms of the ramifications from this tour, any discussions regarding the future of such Lions tours should be dismissed immediately. The idea of losing what is the pinnacle of a rugby player’s career is abhorrent. It is really not even worth contemplating nor wasting good words or time on debating. It is an open and shut case, these tours must carry on in their existing ten match format with arguably a little more ‘getting to know you’ time thrown in at the start. Full stop.
As to reflections of what we have all just witnessed on this tour, credit must be given where credit is due. Ultimately Gatland and his coaching team must be hailed for their selections and having the courage of their convictions. So many supposedly astute rugby sages find it so easy to criticise as they write or speak to earn a crust but very few have the courage to put their hands up and admit when they are wrong, let alone get stuck into the humble pie.
The predicted starting XV’s of the great and good of the rugby world have varied wildly throughout the tour and so often the preferred formations or players selected by Gatland have been dismissed prior to matches as being unworkable or unsuitable but, in the final analysis, who was right ? Yes, the chosen leader, the man who has observed the players in the paddock, in transit and in the team hotels every day.
Rugby is so often about momentum and mindset. Big calls have to be made and sometimes it is only those in daily contact with the players who can gauge who is likely to perform at the top of their game, which players work well together and conversely which players don’t fit into the way the team is going to play, or have lost their confidence or don’t have the right mindset, and need to be jettisoned for the greater good.
Whilst the players were very accessible on this tour, it is only Gatland and his trusted lieutenants who really knew. How many scribes or punters would have selected Liam Williams at full back or Elliot Daly at left wing for the first test ? Who would have ditched Ben T’eo for the second test and recalled Jonathan Sexton, yet retained the much maligned Alan-Wyn Jones and completely ditched Peter O’Mahoney ? Big calls, big balls. Right decisions though, them all.
Gatland has the knowledge and the experience. South Africa in 2021 is not such a fanciful idea after all.
This tour was widely acknowledged as being a huge challenge in advance, of which there was no doubt and the Lions were widely written off, indeed hardly considered lions at all but more like lambs, indeed lambs being led to the slaughter.
There was going to be bloodshed along the way and defeats to some of the Super 14 outfits was inevitable as Gatland had to experiment, to give all his players a fair crack at the whip, to see what ‘worked’ and which combinations ‘gelled’.
It appeared that all the players largely appreciated the chances that they were given. Not everyone can be ‘pleased’ on such a tour with so many players, but such were the opportunities afforded and game time given to each Lion, that a good team spirit was engendered and it certainly seemed that there was a genuine heartfelt desire from all the players that the Test team be victorious, which cannot always be said. That is not always easy to achieve when there is such a large group of players and Gatland must be applauded for his man management in this regard. Achieving this spirit and common sense of purpose would have been critical in the Lions success. Much has been written about previous tours where this has not been the case. Enough said.
Arguably the first test came a little too soon as only in the few days leading up to it was Gatland able to put together the final pieces in his jigsaw, especially surrounding the back three. Yet these were very much the right calls and it really did show the value of the midweek matches and giving every player hope that they had a chance of making the Test team, which is crucially important on such a tour. It makes every match significant and training sessions equally so, played out with energy and determination, with a desire to make an impression and a willingness to win. No quarter was asked or given with the ‘work hard play hard’ mantra strongly to the fore.
The forwards needed a little more time to nail down but Gatland did ultimately get it
‘about right’, considerably aided by the return from injury of his inspirational captain.
As for the players themselves, there are always winners and losers, no matter how successful the tour was. Everyone will have their own views yet there are certain to be some common themes. Jonathan Davies and Maro Itoje were widely recognised as being the two stand out players of the tour and that is reflected in the player ratings below, where they have both been a mark of 9 out of 10.
There are a number of 8’s, but these have only been awarded to test match players, as this is what every player targeted pre-tour and no-one would have been happy had they not made the Test XV or Test match day squad. However, there is one noteworthy exception, that being Dan Biggar. He was always incredibly unlikely to get picked for the Test team due to the presence of Sexton and Farrell but he did play extremely well for the midweek team and was fully deserving of all the praise that came his way.
Player Ratings – Marks Out of 10
Hogg 5 – desperately unlucky with freak injury, sent home early
Halfpenny 6 – solid, good rugby brain, but has lost his pace. Very sad and is really a shadow of his former self
Williams 8 – inspired Test selection after an indifferent start to the tour. Fully justified his selection and played with verve in attack
and was always committed, if a little shaky defensively on occasions
Watson 8 – good all round rugby player both in attack and defence at this top level of the game. Always competitive and never in awe. Dancing feet
Nowell 7 – showed strength of character and determination to come back from a very poor match defensively early in the tour, to make the Test match squad. Always a handful as an attacking force with ‘x’ factor
Seymour 6 – not really Lions class. Gave his all and did his best with some try scoring success but nowhere near the Test team. Lacks pace and was really a wasted selection
Daly 7 – continuing his transformation into a left winger and proving to be a fine all round footballer with much talent and a huge left boot. Played all 3 tests when very few would have given him a prayer of doing so before the tour
Joseph 5 – a big disappointment, when he came on tour with such a big reputation. Maybe all those tries in the 6 Nations against Scotland flattered him. Arguably not given a real chance but he was well marshalled whenever he did play and created little impression. Still, write him off at your peril and he will be determined to come back stronger next season for Bath and England, for he does have talent
Davies 9 – simply excellent in all aspects of his play. Inspirational. No further comment required
T’eo 7 – a big tour for a big man and he came through with flying colours. Made a big impression and had a big game in the first test. Was considered unlucky by many to be dropped for the subsequent tests but this was really for strategic reasons, rather than a reflection of his own performances. There is much more to come from him in the future now that he has qualified and committed to playing for England
Payne 5 – unlucky with injury but made no impression. A strange selection in the first place and sadly he did not merit his call. His was ultimately a wasted selection
Henshaw 6 – disappointing after arriving with high hopes. His chance will come again
Farrell 8 – a born winner and ice cool with his goal kicking, which ultimately ensured the Lions shared the series. Hampered by injury in the middle of the tour which definitely impacted on his performance in the first test so he was rightly moved to 12 thereafter, where he appears more comfortable in the international arena. Even then some of his general play was below the very high standards that he sets himself, but he just about warrants an 8/10 for his coolness under pressure in critical moments
Sexton 8 – brave, courageous and determined as ever when given his chance in the second and third tests. Like Farrell, he is a winner and a leader and he really took it to the All Blacks when given the opportunity and drove the Lions forward at any opportunity. This all came after he struggled initially on the tour as he felt he was in direct competition with Farrell for the fly half position. He clearly felt under pressure, which is never the case for Ireland as he is always an automatic selection, and he visibly tried too hard. So much better when in harness with Farrell, when he could relax and play his natural game
Biggar 8 – as mentioned above, he was never realistically in contention for a starting place in the Test team or on the bench, but he didn’t let this bother him. He seemed to fully embrace the Lions experience and really played very well in some very tough matches. He can feel well pleased with his efforts and will come back with a spring in his step next season and arguably his Lions’ performances will have revived his Welsh career
Murray 8 – a quality scrum half full of experience. Kicking was largely good and he scored the crucial try in the second test. That seemed to really boost his confidence as, prior to that moment, he had seemed a little reluctant to take things on himself which he needs to do more of to be considered a world class player
Webb 7 – enthusiastic and lively, an excellent man to bring on as a replacement when the game is breaking up and there are tired legs. He has pace and an eye for the gap. Kicking and all round game management needs a little working on but, overall, a positive tour
Laidlaw 6 – an experienced international performer but was disappointing here. Hesitant and ponderous at times with a slow service. His age seems to be catching up with him and his best days are clearly behind him. Sadly his was arguably a wasted selection when he was added to the squad after Ben Youngs had pulled out
Mako 7 – he had an excellent tour in most respects. He was a cornerstone of the scrum, was very prominent around the pitch and was an automatic selection for the Test team. However, he seemed to lose his cool and his head in the second Test, giving away numerous penalties and eventually being yellow carded, which could have cost the Lions the match and the series. Fortunately it didn’t and, to his credit, he came back with a barnstorming yet disciplined display in the final Test
McGrath 6 – an adequate back up, no more no less
Cole 7 – can consider himself a little unlucky not to be involved in the Test match squads as he did show up well whenever he played. Furthermore, he showed excellent fitness levels in the midweek matches where he was required to play for the full 80 minutes after the debacle with the additional ‘called up ‘ players
Furlong 8 – a fine tour, for one so young. Made the position his own, played all three Test matches, contributing strongly. Has soft hands too and fine close quarter distribution for such a big man
Sinckler 7 – another success and always made a difference when he came on. Like Furlong, for such a destructive ‘wrecking ball’ of a player, he also has such soft hands. Maybe this is the new breed of prop and surely his time will now come for England after the impression he has created
Marler 6 – adequate. Never short of effort, always contributed around the pitch but arguably not quite as formidable or destructive as some of his fellow props
George 7 – showed up well and started all three Tests, having never started a Test match for England before. Played well and made a difference yet will be disappointed with two errant line out throws in the second half of the final Test at critical times, the second of which led to his immediate withdrawal. Has time to learn yet seems level headed and has a big future ahead of him
Owens 7 – will have been disappointed not to have made the Test match team but there remain questions about his line out throwing and age is arguably not in his favour. However, always fully committed and prominent around the pitch and let no one down. He was even given the honour of captaining the midweek side, which was fully deserved
Best 7 – ditto Owens, to the word
Itoje 9 – a huge success story, which was hardly surprising given the way in which he has adapted to international rugby. After coming on as a replacement in the first Test, there was no looking back for the Saracen, to such a degree that he was making the line out calls in the second and third Tests and his name was even being chanted by the Lions supporters. A superstar in the making
Kruis 6 – another to disappoint. Came to the tour following a serious injury and it seemed as though this was arguably a tour too soon. He did not seem to be match fit and arguably lacked a little confidence, which led to some uncharacteristic errors in the first Test, which quite rightly resulted in his exclusion from the subsequent Test matches. The weight of expectation seemed to burden him but he will surely come back stronger for England
AW Jones 7 – written off by so many but a real workhorse and a legend of the Lions, playing in all three Tests yet again. His experience, know-how and visibility around the pitch counted for much, even though he was replaced at around the hour mark in each Test match. His influence to his younger colleagues cannot be underestimated
Lawes 7 – he performed with pace and power after suffering with injury earlier in the tour and he was rightly awarded a place on the bench for the second and third Tests, and was always lively upon his introduction
Henderson 7 – came out of the tour with credit after some good performances, notably in the final midweek match when he played like a colossus and must have almost forced his way into the match squad for the final two Tests
O’Mahony 7 – commanding performances leading up to the first Test, for which he was selected and made captain in Warburton’s absence. However, arguably he was not able to raise his game to the required level when in competition with the world’s best. Following his replacement after an hour of the first Test, he was not seen again. In many people’s eyes this was a little harsh but the Test team really needed impact players or ‘finishers’ to come off the bench and this is not really his forte. He will have felt disappointed at his apparent ‘ditching’ but this was the right call in the circumstances and he should reflect on the huge accolade he earned as being named as the Lions captain for a Test match against the mighty All Blacks, which can never be taken away from him
O’Brien 8 – a warrior, never happier than when at the coal face and performed admirably in all three Test matches until unfortunately becoming injured and replaced at the end of the first half in the final Test. Scored one of the greatest ever Lions tries in the first Test match which will be long remembered
Warburton 8 – a proud captain who inspired when he was able to play. Struggled with injury in the early and middle parts of the tour and only really came into his own when selected for the second Test, by which time he was clearly much fitter, and by the third Test he was firing on all cylinders. A winner
Haskell 7 – delighted to have been chosen to tour following Billy Vinupola’s withdrawal and arguably played his best rugby of the season. Was never really in contention for a Test match berth but gave it his all, was always involved and seemed to relish the whole experience. A good tourist
Tupiric 7 – an excellent player in the mould of the classic open side flanker, always competing at the breakdown yet with pace, good hands and a superb off-loading game, arguably the best of all the Lions. However, unfortunately for him, he was competing with the tour captain and the vastly experienced Sean O’Brien for the number 7 position and, however well he played, he was always going to be struggling to make the Test match squad and so it proved
CJ Stander 6 – ultimately a little disappointing as before the tour he was being considered a sure fire certainty for the number 6 position. Whilst he started the tour well, he did have a couple of mediocre performances where he made some errors and was not really able to impose himself as much as he would have liked and, as a result, he was overtaken by his compatriot O’Mahony in the pecking order. He made the bench for the final Test to add ballast and physical presence and ended up playing the whole of the second half following O’Brien’s injury. However, in this match and throughout the tour, he never really quite had the impact that might have been expected of him following his immense performances for Ireland throughout the previous season
Faletau 8 – a huge presence throughout, dominant with ball in hand and in defence. An excellent tour
Moriarty 6 – unlucky with injury after a very positive start. It was looking as though he was continuing his excellent Six Nations form, until his tour was cruelly ended by injury
The Lions’ Supporters 9 – simply immense, loud and proud. The Lions’ brand is stronger than ever.
All in all a tremendous tour, full of interest and excitement throughout, leading up to a grand finale. Tours like this are the making of players and provide unforgettable experiences for players and supporters alike. The drawn Test match series was arguably a fitting conclusion to the three epic and tense encounters that had gone before. The Lions’s roar remains as loud as ever.
South Africa in four years time cannot come soon enough but it will really go some to match the excitement and intensity of the past six weeks in New Zealand. However, as ever, it will be fun finding out …..