An agent's perspective on a Lions tour that lived up to the hype
By Simon Lamb in conversation with Henry Bates and Tim Lopez
From ‘a damp squib’
and ‘unimaginable levels of mediocrity’
to ‘the best June series New Zealand has witnessed’
and ‘roll on 12 years’ time’
: it was quite a turnaround for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand. Disharmony, discontent and even traces of disinterest early in the tour as the team in red struggled to find any sort of cohesion was replaced by the emergence of the second best team in world rugby, going toe-to-toe with the best. Three colossal battles and nothing to choose between. The Lions flame burning almost as brightly on New Zealand shores as it did back in 1971, the year of the most famous of touring victories. The Lions brand in rude health once again.
We caught up with two of our talent managers; Henry Bates, who is part of our team in Auckland that represents 17 of the 33 All Blacks selected to take part in this series, and Tim Lopez, who heads up our Talent team in Europe and flew to New Zealand with eight of our players in the Lions squad.
What five words sum up the tour for you?
Unique, special, bring on 2021!
LIONS, LIONS, LIONS, LIONS, LIONS (chanted repeatedly and endlessly)
What was the perception of the Lions among the New Zealand fans and players, particularly in light of the disastrous 2005 tour, and has it changed subsequently?
New Zealanders knew how good the front ten players would be for the Lions but players like Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies really enhanced their reputations and showed any perceptions about the Lions being unable to play an expansive game were unfounded.
I think the majority of supporters here expected the All Blacks to have too much try scoring firepower. However, in reality, the Lions defence proved to be a huge factor in the series. Although the All Blacks scored a couple of good tries in the 1st
test, it was the Lions who undoubtedly scored the try of the series, that remarkable score from Sean O’Brien in the 1st
On the flip side, the way the All Blacks, Super Rugby teams and even the Provincial Barbarians managed to gain parity and often dominate scrum time came as a bit of a surprise.
When the Lions look back on the series in years to come, will there be immense pride at what they’ve achieved or a niggling ‘what could have been’ feeling?
I get the impression there is already a huge amount of pride surfacing from the players, coaches and fans alike, now that the slightly anticlimactic denouement of the final test match has faded. I don’t think there is any doubt this was in itself a monumental accomplishment – leaving the home of the world’s best team (arguably in any sport) with a drawn series is a special achievement. You only have to look at people’s pre-Series predictions to see they’ve defied all expectations, and that will be recognised.
Will there be ‘what-ifs’? I suppose there will be, as that group of players and coaches are born winners and competitors and they’d have badly wanted to win. But they will be rightly proud of what they’ve achieved, and it certainly sets up the rugby world for an interesting few seasons ahead now the All Blacks have been proven mortals!
There is of course disappointment among All Blacks players and fans at not winning the series, however once the dust settles, how do you think people will remember the three match series?
The lasting memory for most New Zealanders will be the Lions fans. To see Eden Park 60% red and the Lions chants being roared so loudly was unbelievable. It even spurred our own usually reserved fans to try and counter it with chants of our own. Remarkable atmosphere.
Of our players who took part in the tour, in either the test matches or tour matches, were there one or two you were particularly pleased for with how the tour went for them?
We were delighted for all of them to get selected in the first place, there really is no greater honour and in a way that was reflected in the heightened professional satisfaction we derive from representing these amazing talents. I couldn’t pick out a single individual, we were seriously proud of every player who are now a part of sporting history.
Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – hard to nominate one without the other. They were both superb in all three Tests.
All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor also. Prior to this series Codie had only started four matches for the All Blacks. Starting in place of the injured Dane Coles he scored the opening try of the series, with a fabulous pick up off his bootlaces, and was strong in all his core roles throughout.
Young Finlay Christie (Chiefs scrum half) really enhanced his reputation and caught the eye of a few in the Northern Hemisphere. He is Scottish and English eligible.
Speaking with our players before, during and after the tour, what has the experience of playing in a Lions series been like?
I have to say, it’s the most cohesive group of Lions tourists I can remember. Whether you were in the starting Test side or you were part of “The Veg” (the midweekers’ self-appointed nickname) there was a unity of purpose and spirit and that was special to observe. Catching up with the players during the series, it was clearly a healthy, hungry and harmonious environment, and a special place to be as a player.
For the Provincial Barbarians players in particular and a lot of the young fringe Super Rugby players it really was a chance-of-a-lifetime. To test themselves against a side flush full of internationals in front of big and vocal crowds was something they will likely never repeat and certainly won’t ever forget.
On a tour like this, what is your role, both before and during, as the player’s manager?
It’s funny because once they’re on the tour there isn’t a great deal we can do for the players other than providing moral and practical support that enables them to fully focus on the task at hand. You could argue that the work we do in between Lions tours is of more value – for any rugby player, playing for the Lions is the absolute pinnacle (yes, over World Cups) and making sure that a player’s career, and the decisions he makes throughout that, give him every opportunity to get on that plane is a big part of our planning and guidance.
When you look back over the six weeks, do you have a particular highlight, both personally and professionally?
Personally, watching my team the Highlanders come from behind to beat the Lions under the roof in Dunedin was definitely the highlight, it was an awesome occasion. Professionally, seeing 22-year-old Anton Lienert-Brown perform so well in the midfield in all three Tests was really pleasing. He looks to have a very bright future indeed.
Definitely the Test Matches, in particular the ‘Cake Tin’ in Wellington. The ‘seas of red’ is almost cliché but looking round that stadium you felt you were back home. It’s a unique atmosphere as it’s quite a bit more boisterous than a typical rugby international; that comes from the melting pot of four nations coming together, being thousands of miles from home, and facing off against the best of the best.
Professionally, you get a particular sense of enjoyment from seeing the players you represent, who in many cases you have known a substantial period of time, take the field in that red jersey. I think if you ask most agents why they got in to the game in the first place, they’d say it was for moments like that, where their clients take the field against the world’s best in a truly world class sporting occasion.
Away from the Lions, is there a young player who you think is one to watch for the future? Perhaps a bolter for Japan 2019.
There is a young fella Jordie Barrett that I hear is going to be pretty good! Or keep an eye out for Blues and Auckland open-side flanker Blake Gibson.
He came to prominence last season but he’s not hit the heights he’s capable of yet – Elliot Daly is my tip for England and world rugby’s next true superstar. English rugby is in rude health, as evidenced by their Series win, minus 14 players on Lions duty, against a near full-strength Argentinian side. So you can take your pick from that England squad and the U20 side as to who could take the stage this season. If I had to pick one I like the look of Denny Solomona a lot, a natural try scorer.
Get in touch
Simon Lamb, Group Marketing Manager: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tim Lopez, Director, Talent, Europe: email@example.com
Henry Bates, Talent Manager, New Zealand: firstname.lastname@example.org