The Lions arrived way back in May, now 11 matches later there is still no clear winner, except perhaps, rugby. Now the thousands of red shirts have finally filtered out of New Zealand, RugbyPass journalist Jamie Wall, who drove a campervan up and down the country to attend every game, has had a chance to reflect on the series. Simon Day for 1972 Journal spoke to him about the best parts of the Lions tour.
Which was the best match of the series?
The third test. It seemed like the whole series had been building to that apex. The game was full of twists and turns, right down to the crazy finish. It was an amazing way for the whole thing to end, completely against everything that had been predicted beforehand. OK, it was a draw that didn't really leave either side particularly happy - but in terms of sporting theatre I don't think I've seen anything like it on a rugby field.
Who was the best player across the series?
Lions centre Jonathan Davies. He gashed every team he played against, starting with the much-vaunted Crusaders. That night the crowd seemed pretty stunned that the Welshman could find gaps so easily, but then he continued to plough through every other team he played with ease. Most locals were like 'who is this guy?', despite the fact that he's got 64 test caps - guess they know who he is now.
Which was the best stadium and crowd?
Bit biased here, because it's my hometown, but Westpac Stadium in Wellington absolutely went off. First the Hurricanes mounted an epic comeback to draw with the Lions, spurred on by a local crowd that could match the Lions fans in volume. This was, of course, helped by the fact that the Canes have the easiest chant to get going (Hurri-canes, nah nah nah Hurri-canes). Then the second test’s noise levels reached even greater levels as the Lions scored their two tries and hit the lead. I've never felt a roar like it ever before at a game of rugby - it shook the media box.
Lions centre Jonathan Davies was the stand out player of the series, carving through all the teams he played.
Best town or city to host a match?
Hard call, because everywhere was pretty special in its own way (even Hamilton). Wellington has such a sweet set up with the waterfront lined with entertainment and bars to keep fans happy on the way to the game, Dunedin’s ground is an intimate modern stadium, Waikato Stadium had a couple of authentic rugby clubs sidled up against it with very agreeable beer prices, and Rotorua had a number of thermal pools to relax in the day after the game.
The Lions' first try in the first test was, in my opinion, the point where even the most biased All Black fans had to start taking the Lions seriously. Started by Liam Williams deep in his own 22, then out to Davies and Elliot Daly, before back in to Sean O'Brien to score - this was the open, running rugby we expected from the All Blacks. Even though they went on to lose, that try meant the Lions had another weapon in their arsenal that the All Blacks needed to be wary of.
Best part of the whole tour?
The Lions came to play and weren't the pushovers we all thought they'd be. As well as that, the friendly invasion of British people determined to have a good time no matter what. Whether it was in a pub, in their camper vans or in the grounds, there was a fantastic atmosphere everywhere. It was like being in an alternative universe New Zealand where everyone was really passionate about something other than whingeing about house prices.
Series-wise - Gatland. He not only had to deal with a tough schedule but a whole heap of unfair treatment from the media as well. I sat through many press conferences where he could've been a dick, but he simply asked for time and to trust his process. It ultimately proved to work, and even though the Lions had a fair share of luck go their way, Gatland proved a few critics wrong over the last month. That's not to say Shag isn't the man, but Gatland climbed a greater height to end up on equal terms with the All Blacks.
Warren Gatland went toe-to-toe with Steve Hansen, and came out on top.
Best team in the world?
Still the All Blacks. If they'd been at full strength and a certain midfielder had used his arms in a tackle, things would've turned out a bit differently I reckon. However, while the Lions did show that there's a few chinks in their armour at Eden Park. The bad news for the Wallabies and Springboks is that the All Blacks have a good month and a bit to fix them.
Are the Lions dead or alive?
Absolutely alive. In these days of instant gratification, the tour offered something rare - we'd waited 12 long years for it, it started off cold, then gradually built in intensity until it took in the interest of the whole country.
Being on it was a long, hard slog. We drove over 5,000 kms in a campervan, from Whangarei to Dunedin, back to Auckland via Rotorua and then down to Wellington and back.
The Lions unexpected triumph in the second test meant that the whole narrative of the tour changed, and the final week was a frenzy of speculation and tension. There is nothing like this anymore in rugby, it has to continue because the Lions have shown they not only are alive, but are willing to get up and fight for their pride and tradition.