Spectator sport

The keys to the kingdom await

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

Give them all peerages as far as I’m concerned: if you can pick up a gong for bunging a few quid to a political party, you surely deserve something if Sonny Bill Williams practically tears your head off. This marvellous, heroic British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand has been one for the ages, whatever happens on Saturday. It’s the much maligned North going head to head with the cocky champions of the South — and holding our own. It says to all those snippy Kiwis: stop dissing the Six Nations (and how much can we look forward to that now!) What is so heartening about that victory last weekend to level the series was quite how badly we played in some areas. To give away ten kickable penalties and have Liam Williams flapping at the high ball as if it were made of soap would normally have resulted in a bucketful of points against. And yet we kept the All Blacks tryless.

It was a staggering effort and a triumph for that other Farrell, whose bearded, granite visage is ever-present in the coaches’ box. All hail Andy
Farrell and his defensive coaching. He has good form against New Zealand — he was defensive coach when Ireland beat them in Chicago last year, and for England when Chris Robshaw’s men won at Twickenham in 2012. Just do it one more time on Saturday, Andy, and the keys to the kingdom are yours.

They are easy to admire these All Blacks, less easy to love. French referees, though: how great are they? When the heroic Jerome Garces sent off Sonny Bill, you could see that weed Jaco Peyper trying to challenge him. But thank heaven someone at last had the guts to stop the All Blacks cheating. And now we have Romain Poite reffing the decider. Here’s hoping for another great French display in what for us northerners is the biggest rugby match since 2003. Mark you the Lions can do their fair share of cheating too: watch how Owen Farrell took out the New Zealand scrum half and Jonny Sexton blocked all and sundry to create an opening for Conor Murray’s game-changing try. Turn a blind eye to that sort of thing please, Romain.

But what happens when it’s all over? After the party and the flight home, the next time most of these guys will see each other it will be war. One day there will be a reunion and a TV documentary when they will say it was the time of their lives. Between now and then they will knock seven bells out of each other for club and country. And that is how it should be.

This week Joe Root ended his long months waiting in the wings to walk down the pavilion steps at Lord’s as England captain. Who doesn’t love Root? He is even holding his own with the Vitality Insurance dachshund in those terrific TV ads. He must also be the first Yorkshireman to captain England (or play for England for that matter) to be described as fresh-faced. They don’t go in for that sort of thing in the white-rose county. Len Hutton, a redoubtable Yorkshireman if ever there was one, used to have a thing about pink-faced Englishmen not really measuring up — which I seem to remember was why he wasn’t a big Tom Graveney fan. Or at least that’s what the amiable Graveney always reckoned.

England’s most important fresh-faced player should turn out to be Alastair Cook, who is having the time of his life in county cricket now he has laid aside the England captaincy. He is Essex’s leading run-scorer with an average of just under 70, including 193 last week against Middlesex. In one-day cricket he averages just under 80.

Cook is still only 32. If Kumar Sangakkara can still be scoring hundreds for fun at the age of 39, Cook could have the best years of his career ahead of him. Here’s a new goal for him: get to 50 Test hundreds (he already has 30) and then retire. That will be one behind Sachin Tendulkar — which is not a bad place to be.

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