If the Rotorua International Stadium were a giant hangi pit, then the Lions mauled and dug the Maori into its deep depths on Saturday night.
Dominant and powerful (but still largely backline-inept) as the Lions were, the Maori certainly were not handed any pre-match favours due to the machinations of the All Black selectors.
In fact you could say that they marginalised the Maori good and proper. Never mind the fact it was glaringly arrogant to have Damian McKenzie and James Lowe out of position in the backline against an opposition of that calibre, the NZRU and the selectors stand guilty of sullying the tradition of a fiercely proud team in their treatment of this match as a kind of Probables-Possibles trial for their sacrosanct Test team. Sacrilege?
You have to feel for McKenzie. He has been treated like a plastic dust pan by the selectors over the past couple of seasons. Sorry, I can’t hold back my incredulity on this. He has consistently been the most dangerous back in Super Rugby over the past two seasons, with all his Rugby at fullback. (I know all the whats and where fors about his potential utility value to the All Blacks etc., I’d thank anyone not to crap on about that).
On the Lions and their tactical blueprint for potential test series success; it does bring up a curious paradox. That being of a modern-day Rugby Union team steeped in technical analysis, flora and fauna diets and yoga recovery, but playing in a manner from the 1960s.
It is totally fascinating from the point of a world of difference in style to how the All Blacks play. The Test series is looking like a goodie now. How can you knock a team for playing to their strengths? Like heck they will give a toss what we think anyway. Their only successful team here, the 1971 lot, had a phenomenally talented set of backs, but built their test victories on keeping it tight in the forwards. The ball didn’t very often go past Barry John at 10, except when they were playing catch-up in the second test.
It is just possible that the first test of 2017 becomes a case of which side adjusts themselves best to the refereeing of Jaco Peyper. Most unfortunately that is how ridiculously technical Rugby Union is these days. You can be sure that the great gruff one Hansen will directly or through the media, put a flesh-eating flea in the ear of Peyper about the Lions creeping up to the offside line (or over it). Conversely, Gatland will probably say something about the way the All Blacks often test the limits in their breakdown clean-outs.
Where Owen Farrell now fits into the Lions’ backline will be very interesting. If fit, it is not completely unfeasible he could warm the pine- it isn’t likely, however. If Sexton does sneak in to start though and Halfpenny is the fullback (which he should be), the goalkicking is more than covered. That scenario leaves the possibility of Farrell starting at inside centre. This was always a strong possibility when the squad was first named- in fact it looked highly likely. But the real emergence of Ben Te’o as a destructive option in that position has changed things somewhat. And in Jonathan Davies they have the form centre of world rugby. I am not going to guess which way they will go on this. For once it is too damn difficult.