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.
Previous Q&A chats:
Neil de Kock
Bakkies BothaRohan Janse van Rensburg