After a decade or so of coaching the New Zealand Maori, through the hard times when the fixture list was barren, through to the present day, Matt Te Pou has built his legend as Maori coach.
His relaxed style has created what is obviously a very special and very unique Maori rugby world within a world, and you only have to listen to the players to understand what it means to them.
Last night was fittingly the biggest game of Matt Te Pou’s career, and to watch his boys go out and earn a gutsy win against a powerful touring Lions team was an absolutely perfect climax to it.
Looking at the game, the player who stood out was Jonno Gibbes. It was probably his best ever performance. He was a titan both in the air, and in general play, and when it was needed he provided the kind of leadership that shored up the defence, and kept his team on track for an historic victory.
Right from the start it was obvious that the game was going to be a special one from the Maori players. They were saying farewell to both Te Pou, and to Carlos Spencer and they were playing the Lions, so there was motivation in spades. Aside from that, this Maori team, for once, had been given precedence in selection over the All Blacks, so it was at full-strength.
There were some intriguing battles too. All Black tight-head prop Carl Hayman was up against the probable Lions test prop Sheridan, a monster of a man. He was only on the field for the first half, but Sheridan appeared to be getting the better of his opponent before he was subbed, setting up a mouth-watering prospect for the first test at Jade stadium.
In midfield, Mr. Twinkle-toes himself, Rua Tipoki, was up against The World’s Best Centre and Lions skipper Brian O’Driscoll. Tipoki had a wonderful game, and at one point side-stepped O’Driscoll to make a clean break and leave the Great One flopping on the ground like a beached snapper. On the other hand O’Driscoll showed his class later in the game with a superlative line break to score a try under the posts and give his team the sniff of a win which remained a threat right until the last minute of time.
One area which should be worrying the Lions Brains Trust is the breakdown. With no opensider worthy of the name in their squad, save perhaps Lewis Moody, who looked fairly ordinary against Taranaki, they are beginning to realise that they will struggle for continuity and fast ruck ball when up against the likes of McCaw in the tests. Or are they?
This aspect of the Lions squad has been puzzling me since I heard it announced. Either Clive is a complete schmuck who knows nothing about the modern game, or he’s got a plan – there isn’t a third option.
Looking at the post-match interviews, we see an open, fair-minded and relaxed Sir Clive. Even the angst of this defeat against the Maori didn’t faze him. Now over the years Clive has never struck me as the kind of bloke who can smile openly and chat fulsomely and enthusiastically about the game when everything around him is unravelling and turning to brown stuff. Nope, Sir Clive has the air of A Man Who Knows Something.
The only conclusion to come to is that he has always been quite relaxed about the tour games, because none of them is going to be remotely like what he’s planning for the tests, neither in terms of the personel, nor gameplan.
Let’s look again at this issue of the lack of speed to the breakdown. You wouldn’t worry about that if your game was going to be structured in such a way that quick ruck ball and recycling was unimportant, and this is what I’m assuming is the case.
From the squad selection, and what I’ve seen on the tour so far, I’m picking that Sir Clive’s Lions will be rolling back the years to a degree, and playing set-piece, forward-oriented, “old-fashioned” rugby. They’re going to take it right up the guts, and play a smothering game, in close to the ruck, and pinging the lines backing a tall well-drilled lineout, and a solid scrum to win them possession and to keep it. The backs will all be his loose-forwards, smothering the opposition on defence, and keeping possession without being too creative, until they milk the penalty on attack.
Then there’s The WIlko Factor. WIlkinson is, of course, his piece de résistance. Rumour has it that The Perfect Rugby Machine will not appear until the Lions run out and drop the mascot in the first test match. For all I know the guy we’ve been seeing getting on and off coaches is a stunt double, and Wilko is in a special shock-proof perspex tubular container full of light-green luminescent liquid with all sorts of beeping equipment attached to it, in suspended animation. After all, you can’t be too careful.
I can see them playing this retro-game, in tight, nullifying the All Blacks speed by suffocation, rendering McCaw’s speed to the breakdown useless, and relying on the boot of young Jonny to knock over the drop-kicks and penalties, which will flow from All Black frustration. In Clives mind, if the first two tests are Nil-all draws, and Jonny wins the decider with a 35m droppie 1 second from the hooter, that will be the way he scripted it.
Either that, or Clive has got it all very wrong indeed!
See you in Wellington campers!
STOP PRESS: The hot news is Wilko is being thawed out and the re-animation electrodes applied for the midweek game against Wellington this coming Wednesday. That’s risky. They play the game a bit rough in The Capital, so I hope he’s got medical insurance.