The All Blacks drew the series against the British and Irish Lions for only the second time in their history. Photo: Nigel Marple/Reuters
The rugby world hasn’t quite been knocked off its axis, but thanks to the feat of the British and Irish Lions, our customary worship of the All Blacks is perhaps misplaced.

Like two formidable heavyweights slugging it out for 12 hard rounds, only for the bout to be declared a draw, the Lions and All Blacks served up a feast that ultimately resolved nothing. 

What it revealed was that our collective dismissal of northern-hemisphere rugby and our veneration of the All Blacks are both wrong.

The latter point is especially encouraging from a South African viewpoint. The Rugby Championship has become uncompetitive, not because the All Blacks are so dominant, but because the chasing pack have been so ordinary and underpowered.

The Springboks went through the wringer last year, but even in the years preceding 2016, they struggled to stay the pace with New Zealand. Two wins in the past 15 Tests is a miserable return.

I once put it to Jake White that our players looked afraid of taking on the All Blacks. He laughed, explaining that was a figment of my imagination. The likes of Schalk Burger, Bryan Habana and Bakkies Botha relished the challenge, White assured.

Even so, in the past few years, our teams have largely been incapable of matching them.

The Lions punctured that sense of All Blacks’ invincibility by doing the things the Boks talk of but seldom execute. Flooding the breakdown, closing space, defending accurately, kicking cleverly and punching hard on attack.

These were hallmarks of the Lions’ game. They knocked the All Blacks off their rhythm, and the result was a pock-marked affair that dented their formidable aura.

Even Beauden Barrett, the world’s best player, looked mortal as he flitted between good and ordinary.

His goal-kicking was rubbish, with five misses in the second and third Tests.

Unsurprisingly, a sense of alarm has since run through New Zealand, almost as if their heroes are on the verge of flatlining.

This is an over-reaction, but it says much about their inherent excellence that anything but an A-plus performance is deemed unworthy. Steve Hansen, who is as shrewd as they come, won’t sit still for a single minute. The New Zealand playbook is being rewritten.

No-one’s saying that the All Blacks have fallen off the cliff, but even they have questions over depth, experience and execution. Suddenly not everything’s coming up roses.

There’s more change in the wind. Whatever you think of the referees in the recent series, and Romain Poite was grim, their collective refusal to bow down at the All Black temple was refreshing.

Unlike in past years, when 50-50 decisions so often went New Zealand’s way, in 2017 the law book applied to them too. Sonny Bill Williams’ sending-off was a case in point. So too Jerome Garces penalising Charlie Faumuina for tackling Kyle Sinckler with his feet off the ground.

With officials no longer in thrall to the All Blacks, matches took on a different gloss. We can but hope the same applies in the Rugby Championship, where Poite of all people will take charge of the Boks’ opening match against Argentina next month.

Ironically, it was he who sent off Bismarck du Plessis for his brutal  and legitimate  tackle on Dan Carter four years ago. Little wonder it’s so difficult to warm to referees.

The Boks will take great heart from the recent series. They’ve still got a long way to go, but there was enough evidence on show in their own 3-0 hammering of France to believe they are on the right road after the horrors of last year.

They were organised, direct and powerful; qualities you need if the All Blacks are the opposition.

One final point: the Lions’ next stop is in SA in 2021. The demands of professionalism, not least the self-interest of the four home unions and assorted clubs, is threatening the very concept of the Lions.

This is absurd and disappointing. The Lions are one of rugby’s great traditions and deserve to thrive, especially as they hang on to the last vestiges of proper touring.

Here’s hoping the Boks and the six or so other sides thrown into the mix in four years can muster a challenge as mighty and as memorable as this Lions jaunt.


Sunday Tribune

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