No Dunedin-based blog site worth its weight in haggis or its volume in Scotch can omit to mark the victory of the Highlanders rugby team over the touring British & Irish Lions team on Tuesday night. A sphincter-clenching 23-22 win that was only secured when the Lions centre fittingly dropped the ball while on attack towards what might have been a match-winning try in overtime.
This was a great effort by the local team that was missing half of its starting lineup who had been called up for national duty in the upcoming All Blacks and NZ Maori teams to play the Lions. The only thing that could take the gloss off such a big local event attracting 27,000 spectators, quarter of our city’s population on a very cold night, was the attitude of Lions players who made comment.
One of the props said, the ref was too harsh in expecting that when they replaced their front row it should not be penalised for causing the first collapsed scrum because they should be given a bit of leniency until they got adjusted. Like saying a replacement fullback should be allowed a couple of dropped catches without being called up for a knock-on just because he needed time to get his eye in.
Unbelievable for a professional, international player to make that comment. But that ‘not our fault’ attitude typifies those who fear defeat much more than they love glory. And once the blame game is allowed to take root, the fear contagion spreads right through the team. It probably starts with the coach and his pre tour briefing. That is the opportunity to plant the seed that will dictate the culture. Fear or fearless, it comes down to the coach. While they talk about needing time to get their systems working, that is a fob-off for full-time professionals. The problem is the culture from the seed of fear of losing that was planted at the first briefing, We saw it in the pathetic game against the NZ Barbarians team of club and second string Super 18 players; again in the Blues game that the Lions deservedly lost but mostly in the tryless win against the Crusaders; that was a defence-focused win (couldn’t call it a victory) based on the Lions fear of losing rather than seeking glory. And we saw it against the Highlanders. They are a bunch of scaredy cats and they are too scared to play to their potential because they are scared to fail and if they don’t reverse that fear culture then it will be an unmemorable tour, no matter who wins.
If it was a southern hemisphere team combining South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina it would be a Barbarians team and in true Barbarians style would be a showcase of rugby at its most entertaining. For rugby is entertainment. Well paid entertainment. Rock stars may have their personal demons and self-doubts, don’t we all? but when Black Sabbath and Fleetwood Mac came to our stadium they gave us everything they had. Played it loud and played it proud. So why do Lions rugby players think they have a right to shortchange the fans? The huge income and payouts to players do not come from just three test matches but from the full financial input of the whole host country and the TV sponsors. Short change us and we just won’t buy you again. We prefer to be entertained by glorious losses than to be bored by negative wins.
Much used to be made by media commentators that the All Blacks had an unbeaten record against Ireland (until the test in Chicago in 2016). But the old school All Black supporters and the All Blacks themselves never accepted that record. In 1978 an All Black team was beaten by Munster, 12 nil. That Munster was not the Irish test team mattered not to us. That it was a mid week All Black team was irrelevant. That we had to focus on an upcoming test against Ireland was no excuse. The All Blacks were beaten by an Irish team on Irish soil on October 31 1978. We were not looking for Munster to teach us how to play rugby. We were not using them as a training run. It was an international match that we wanted to win and that we did not win. And it mattered to us. And indeed on 13 June 2017 the British & Irish Lions, selected from the cream of the crop of four nations, were beaten in Dunedin by the Otago & Southland Highlanders. Own it, Warren Gatland, and if you are thinking of applying for Tony Brown’s job at the end of the season, don’t call us…..we need a coach who says every game matters, every game is there to be won and won well. But when you do lose, then at least lose well. In this game, the Highlanders won and they won well. The Lions lost, and they lost badly.