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2017 Lions Series Revisited


On this day three years ago, the Lions played their first test match against New Zealand on their 2017 tour, a game that featured arguably the greatest Lions try of all time. Using our deep, detail rugby data, Stats Perform recounts the series, as well as comparing that Lions score to perhaps the greatest try ever seen.

By: Jonathan McCormick

Perhaps it is quite fitting that the first professional rugby union since March kicked off in New Zealand recently – a country that has long led the way in this form of the game. Meanwhile, those who follow the sport in the Northern Hemisphere will have to wait until at least August before the major leagues and competition returns.

However, fans in the UK and Ireland can look back to recent years for a reminder that, while the All Blacks remain the standard-bearers, the gap is closing somewhat. Before 2016, a 2012 defeat at Twickenham was the only blemish on New Zealand’s record against British and Irish sides since 2003. However, over the last four years Ireland have beaten the All Blacks twice and England once, while Scotland gave the three-time World Champions a real scare the last time they welcomed the All Blacks to Edinburgh. When the best of Britain and Ireland combined for the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017, the two sides could not be separated after 240 minutes of Test rugby. The drawn 2017 series was the first ever tied Lions tour.

2017 Lions Tour - An Inseparable Series

AveragesNew ZealandBritish & Irish Lions
Goal %75%86%
Clean Breaks7.37.7
Defenders Beaten16.315.0
Tackle %86%89%
Penalties Conceded8.010.3
Lineout %84%84%
Scrum %100%84%
Ruck %98%97%
Time in possession16:5115:18

At the end of the tour the match averages for each team were fairly balanced, as you’d expect in a Test series that saw each side win one game apiece and share a draw.

The All Blacks edged the Lions in several attacking categories in the first Test, however a defensive masterclass one week later saw the Lions restore parity, with the British and Irish outfit restricting New Zealand to just one clean break,a tally that was a joint match-low for the All Blacks since Stats Perform have recorded this data, level with their 12-12 try-less draw against Australia in 2014.

However, posting some impressive stats against the All Blacks doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll avoid defeat, sometimes you need a little bit of luck or a little bit of magic. Ironically though, the Lions’ most magical moment of the 2017 tour came during their Test defeat – three years ago today.

“One of the Great Lions Test Tries”

“That is one of the great Lions Test tries” were the words of Stuart Barnes after Sean O’Brien dived over the New Zealand try line, the Irish flanker putting the finishing touches on a try that saw the Lions traverse from almost one end of the pitch to the other.

Of course, it’s entirely subjective as to what makes a try great. For some it’s about a moment of individual genius, for others it’s about patient build up before finding the cracks in the defence. Quite often, though, the distance travelled with the ball comes into the equation.

Tries From Inside 22 v. New Zealand since 2010

TeamMetres GainedPhasesDateFixture
England862November 6, 2010England v New Zealand
Australia873August 27, 2011Australia v New Zealand
South Africa823October 4, 2014South Africa v New Zealand
British & Irish Lions831June 24, 2017New Zealand v British & Irish Lions
Australia8914August 26, 2017New Zealand v Australia
France877June 16, 2018New Zealand v France
Australia842August 18, 2018Australia v New Zealand

The Lions’ 36th minute try in the first Test against New Zealand saw them gain 83 metres between Anthony Watson gathering the ball to Sean O’Brien diving over for the try. Since 2010, New Zealand have only conceded six tries from such distance, and seven from within the opposition’s 22, however none of those other five-pointers came within a single phase of play. The Lions, crucially, managed to keep the ball alive and thus avoided having to compete at the breakdown, an area in which New Zealand excel at slowing the play down.

The Greatest Try Ever Scored

How does that Lions try compare to one of the all-time greats? For many, the Barbarians’ try against New Zealand in Cardiff in 1973 was the greatest try ever scored and it does bear certain similarities to the Lions’ effort 44 years later, including the fact that it was a try scored against the All Blacks by a Barbarians team made up of players from the UK and Ireland. In fact, 12 of the players in that BaaBaas lineup had faced New Zealand on the Lions tour two years prior. Both tries too were the culmination of some Welsh sidestepping magic, with Liam Williams playing the Phil Bennett role in igniting the move.

Both tries came within a single phase of play, with neither the Lions nor the Barbarians having to compete at a breakdown on their way to the try line, while the time taken from the moment the ball was first touched to the try being scored was almost identical – the Lions needing just one second fewer than the ’73 BaaBaas. In terms of metres, defenders beaten, passes and players involved though, the Barbarians edged Warren Gatland’s men.

For the Barbarians’ iconic score, Phil Bennett danced past four defenders, the most of any player in the try-scoring move. Immediately after Bennett’s jinking run the ball was shipped onto JPR Williams and John Pullin, before John Dawes made the initial line break, gaining 26 metres in the process. Tom David and Derek Quinnell would add double figures to the metres gained tally before Gareth Edwards burst into the line and carried the remaining 32 metres for one of the greatest Test tries.

During the Lions’ try scoring phase it was Liam Williams who beat the majority of the defenders, stepping Kieran Read after receiving Anthony Watson’s pass, before gliding past two more All Blacks for the initial clean break; the Welsh fullback gaining the most metres of any Lion during the try-scoring move. A one-two between Jonathan Davies and Elliot Daly saw the pair each gain 20+ metres – Daly beating one defender in the process – before Sean O’Brien received Davies’ offload and crashed over.

Perhaps the main thing that separates the two tries is that the Barbarians’ effort came in the opening moments of their match against the All Blacks and inspired a comprehensive victory over the visitors, while the Lions went on to suffer a first Test defeat. For Gatland’s side better performances were to come, but three years on we can still appreciate a try that will live long in the memory.

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