Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former British and Irish Lion MATT STEVENS talks about the Test series, the Cheetahs and Kings heading up north and Romain Poite reffing the Boks in the Rugby Championship.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up the British and Irish Lions’ New Zealand sojourn?
Matt Stevens: The tour to New Zealand was brilliant and I’m sad that it’s over. The British and Irish Lions started off with plenty of good players but, at first, weren’t in the same league as the Kiwis. However, over the six weeks they managed to turn themselves into a team that could compete with the best side in the world. A drawn series was somewhat surprising, but once the dust settles both sets of players will realise that a stalemate was a fair reflection of the three-Test series. Make no mistake - it’s quite an achievement to draw a Test series in New Zealand. I was a member of the 2005 Lions team that toured New Zealand and we were whitewashed. Australia and South Africa are very difficult places to tour but, taking everything into account, New Zealand has to be the toughest. It's not just because of the rugby; it’s the travel and the fact that you are continually living and breathing rugby. Everyone is All Black mad. Even though the final Test and series was drawn, it will go down in history as a very important step up for northern hemisphere rugby. Northern hemisphere rugby is in a great place at present. We are experiencing a purple patch and we will start competing at a regular level more consistently against the southern hemisphere sides. It bodes well for a really hard-fought Rugby World Cup in two years’ time, and I believe the more competitiveness across the board, the better. The tour was a spectacle for the supporters, who are the driving force behind the Lions, and a reaffirmation of how important the British and Irish Lions tour is for the four home nations, and world rugby at large. Moreover, children playing at grassroots level in the UK will remember the Test series for years to come, and it’s likely to inspire the next generation of players.
Sport24 asked: What tactical clues did the Lions offer New Zealand’s upcoming opponents?
Matt Stevens: The Lions knew that if they had any chance of putting New Zealand to the sword they would have to attack them. The tries the Lions scored underlines that the northern hemisphere possesses players that can compete on an attacking front. To beat the All Blacks you have to be at your very best, take risks and capitalise on your opportunities. The attacking play from the Lions was significantly better than what I have seen from northern hemisphere teams in a long time. The Lions then consolidated that with grit at the breakdown and solidity on defence. Andy Farrell and Warren Gatland really worked hard on shutting the All Blacks down. The Lions showed how effective a rush defence can be if your team is connected and they trust each other. For 80-plus minutes they pushed themselves to be as aggressive as possible, and we saw that those tactics put the All Blacks under pressure. The All Blacks made uncharacteristic mistakes with ball in hand, and I would like to think that it was because the Lions were unbelievably effective on defence and managed to force those errors. Furthermore, the Lions got the better of the All Blacks in terms of the aerial battle. It’s an area in which teams can target the latter side during the Rugby Championship. The Lions led the way with their kicking game and exerted pressure on New Zealand’s back three. Conor Murray, who is arguably the best scrumhalf in the world, was calmness personified throughout the Test series and his tactical kicking proved effective owing to the weight of his kicks and the quality of the chase line.
Sport24 asked: There has been talk that the Lions series should be shortened. Your take?
Matt Stevens: Rugby players are playing too much rugby in general, so why are we picking on the Lions series which happens every four years? Let’s not look at a series that only comes around every four years and complain about that. The cost benefit is huge. Yes, the Lions play a six-week tour, but in order for a scratch team to be able to compete with Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, they need to have preparation time over that period in order to be able to compete in the Tests at the end of the series. I don’t believe the issue is too much rugby at the Lions, which is threatening player welfare. You could probably argue that there is too much rugby in the domestic season. The introduction of a global season from 2020 onwards will be brilliant and is long overdue to be honest. It’s high time the game’s stakeholders set aside the petty stuff and do what is good for the game in general in world rugby. I believe we need to think very carefully about how we are marketing the oval-shaped game, what time of the year we are playing it in, and the importance of player welfare.
Sport24 asked: Maro Itoje’s been marked as a future England skipper. A sage prediction?
Matt Stevens: I know Maro well from my time at Saracens when he was playing in the academy and on occasion for the first-team. By all accounts, he is a great guy, is humble and has an old head on young shoulders. There is no doubt that he could be a good captain for England and the British and Irish Lions in the future. However, we have to be very careful about the type of pressure we put on young players. As a 22-year-old, for now, Maro’s focus should be exclusively on his own game and trying to be the best in the world. The Lions series has catapulted him to a new level and he should consolidate that and keep developing his game. A positive for the current England team is that they have plenty of leaders across the board. Owen Farrell is a hugely influential leader, while Jamie George enhanced his credentials on the recent tour to New Zealand. I could definitely see any one of the aforementioned players assuming the England captaincy when Dylan Hartley leaves the position.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of Bok rugby and their Rugby Championship chances?
Matt Stevens: I felt the Springboks answered many of their critics against France. Some people will say it wasn’t a good French team, but I would disagree. It was maybe not as motivated a French team, but all their players play week-in and week-out in the Top 14 and Six Nations, which are top-flight competitions. As such, whitewashing the visitors was no mean feat and the Springboks would have built a massive amount of confidence. It was a good step in the right direction for Bok rugby, and they have plenty of young players in the mix that will continue to develop at Test level. We were very critical of the Springboks before the French series and some of us still are, but I’m hoping that South Africa gets behind a young team, which has heaps of potential. I’m a big fan of Brendan Venter (Springbok defence coach) and what he brings to teams. I’ve been in many of his teams and he is an exceptional coach. It’s good that the Boks are bringing in consultants of Brendan’s calibre. Speaking to John Smit recently, he said that the Springboks are open to get outside help in and they are not resting on their laurels. The group is aiming for all-round improvement which is encouraging. The All Blacks will be a force to be reckoned with in the Rugby Championship, but the Boks will give a good account of themselves. The All Blacks will be hurting, as they really expect to win everything because they generally do. I believe it’s always good to be humbled somewhat every now and then.
Sport24 asked: Romain Poite will take charge of South Africa’s Rugby Championship opener against Argentina in August. Should Springbok supporters be concerned by his presence?
Matt Stevens: I don’t believe they should be. While Poite isn’t one of South African rugby supporters’ favourite referees, in general, I felt he officiated the third and final Test in Auckland very well. In terms of the way the final decision was dealt with, I thought Poite did a very good job. He was considered and made the decision in conjunction with the TMO and not on his own. He pored over all the footage he could get because he knew that is was a pivotal point in the match. Rugby is a technical game in many senses and, owing to the large amount of rules we have, it’s important to utilise technology to get the big calls right. However, it’s also important to not go too far and become over-reliant on technology. When a referee is 98 percent certain of a decision, he must have the confidence in his own abilities and take responsibility for decision-making. I felt Poite got the balance right and, despite his many detractors, I’m of the view that he is a good Test referee.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the axed Cheetahs and Kings set to join the Pro14?
Matt Stevens: The prospect of the Cheetahs and Kings, who have been relegated from Super Rugby from next season, joining an expanded Pro14 competition from September, is very interesting. I’m excited to see what happens in that regard. Economically it will be a good move and, from a travel standpoint, it’s a no-brainer. A one-hour time difference and a 12-hour flight makes sense for South African teams, and I believe the fans would be more connected to the product. It would be brilliant in terms of a spectacle and although northern hemisphere rugby has smaller stadia in general, they are leading the charge in terms of stadium support. It would be a very good step for rugby, and northern and southern teams competing against each other domestically is something rugby supporters have wanted to see for a long time. With crowd figures down in South Africa, rugby bosses have to come up with innovative ways to keep supporters interested. It’s sad to see the crowd attendances dropping, but the TV viewership isn’t down, which proves that the fans are still there. But, they need to be engaged. I’m an organiser of a multi-sport event (Sevens and the City) and what’s important for stakeholders to realise is that a day out at a stadium has to be a complete family experience. I don’t want rugby to go the way of the NFL and Major League Baseball, where commerciality and advertising is driving the model, but there are elements we can copy and paste.
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