2 Jul 2017

Send in the clown - who's laughing now?

7:46 am on 2 July 2017

Opinion - "I'm a pretty happy clown this week."

A television host holds up a newspaper with an image of British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland depicted as a clown before their rugby union match against the Wellington Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium in Wellington on June 27, 2017.

A television host holds up a newspaper with an image of British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland depicted as a clown before match against the Hurricanes. Photo: AFP

Yep, the lampooned Warren Gatland, stoked after his Lions took the All Blacks to a decider. Do your talking on the field.

And though far from pretty, this blockbuster 24-21 win over the All Blacks on a wet night in Wellington had the entire British and Irish press corps smiling under their brollies. Game on, hey.

And so we have a test series, rejoiced the Irish Times. "It's for days, occasions and most of all games like this that millions love rugby and love sport. An epic Lions win, one to tell the grandchildren about."

The Telegraph's man took it up: "The stone has been rolled back. The Lions have come back from the seeming dead. History has been made. The series is still alive."

And the Guardian ran with it. "Lions have levelled the series on a night when defeat would have further called into question their very existence," said their blogger excitedly.

Warren Gatland

The Lions' kiwi coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Photosport

It was a refrain spun across the media. "How can you even question whether there should be a Lions or not … the support is unbelievable," tweeted ex-Wales and Lions openside Martyn Williams, as reported on the BBC Online.

So all good with the world back here in Blighty, with everyone agreeing it was a ripper of a game - even those of us sitting on the fence - but it was, of course, the result that mattered.

History is not easily conquered but the Lions managed it, the Telegraph waxed lyrically. "The Lions did all they could to carve a slice of it for themselves. This was the All Blacks first defeat at home in eight years."

The Sun, meanwhile, chased down another record, that of World Cup hero Sonny Bill Williams being the first All Black in 50 years to be sent off and the first ever on New Zealand soil.

Never slow to press home an advantage, it went on: "His sickening shoulder charge to the FACE of Anthony Watson left ref Jerome Garces with no other option."

There's more: "Even though the bottle-job TMO tried to get the French whistler to change his mind." Well, yes.

Sonny Bill Williams goes off the field after receiving a red card.

Sonny Bill Williams goes off the field after receiving a red card. Photo: AFP

For many, however, this will for ever be remembered for the dismissal of Williams, who probably won't be giving away his strides tonight.

Gatland, unkindly caricatured in his homeland this week, was gracious post-match, and widely quoted across the back pages.

"We go to Auckland with everything to play for. I think we were the better team and deserved to win. We gave away some soft penalties, which were disappointing. We need to rectify that.

"When we got the ball in their half we stressed them. With Sonny Bill Williams off it makes it difficult for them but I'm proud that we're 1-1."

Owen Farrell kicks a penalty.

Owen Farrell kicks a penalty. Photo: PhotoSport

They have no doubt been eating their Weet-Bix. Because, soft or not, the Irish Times man thought the Lions were different animals this week.

"Gatland had openly bemoaned the Lions' lack of physicality when the All Blacks big rumblers ran hard off Aaron Smith last week, and at the breakdown, also calling upon his retained players to show their pride as well as re-enforcing their strength in contact by promoting Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton.

"It worked. The Lions ultimately made 112 tackles to 53, missing only 10 to the All Blacks dozen, and conceding only one line break while making six themselves. Itoje, Toby Faletau, the immense Sean O'Brien and Warburton made 49 tackles between them."

What changes might Gatland make for next week then? What of his gamble to bring Johnny Sexton into the starting XV? According to the BBC blog, you would be a fool to "second-guess his test picks on this tour".

"They have sneaked home against 14 men via a questionable penalty. The same again next week probably won't be enough."

But just now it is. What a night for the red-shirted heroes. To paraphrase another whose team played in red. Rugby. Bloody hell.

Mick Reid is an Australian journalist who has called Old Blighty home for too long. A late convert to the oval ball game, he has worked at the past three Rugby World Cups and considers himself a neutral - of sorts.

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