It has taken Sam Warburton four months to begin to compute exactly what the British & Irish Lions achieved in New Zealand over the summer.
Warburton admits his initial feeling following the third Test against New Zealand, a 15-15 draw that ensured that the series too ended in stalemate, was one of disappointment. But having reflected on the tour properly for the first time last weekend while watching British & Irish Lions: Uncovered, the tour captain’s mood has lightened.
He believes, though, that it could take another 12 years — a full cycle of Lions tours — before people can accurately appraise the 2017 series and where it ranks. Prior to departing for New Zealand the Lions had beaten the All Blacks on just six occasions, and had a solitary series win in the bank.
“All the odds were stacked against us,” Warburton told ESPN. “Speaking to people, everybody’s perception of the tour has been great since I’ve been home. So, that’s been nice, I’m really proud of the effort.
“Obviously, you will always have that little bit of disappointment that we couldn’t win the series, that’s what everything was geared towards. But I’m still pretty pleased with the way we applied ourselves out there.”
Warburton added: “It will be interesting to see what will happen in 12 years’ time. I know it’s an age away, but I think that will put into perspective what we did.”
The All Blacks welcomed the Lions to New Zealand on a 46-match winning home run that stretched back to a defeat to the Springboks in 2009. They would extend that sequence with victory in the first Test before the tourists snapped it in Wellington.
Ultimately, the deciding Test would end in strange circumstances as referee Romain Poite decided that Ken Owens was offside accidentally from an All Blacks kick off, and subsequently awarded the hosts a scrum rather than a penalty that would have surely cost the Lions the series.
The tourists held firm from the resulting set piece, but at the final whistle there was an eerie atmosphere as the players shared the ‘winners’ rostrum and Warburton and New Zealand captain Kieran Read lifted the series trophy together.
“The players weren’t quite sure, we didn’t know whether to celebrate or not,” Warburton said. “I don’t even need one hand to count the amount of times I’ve drawn a game of rugby, not just at international level, at club level too. It is extremely rare. Nobody would have even thought of the eventuality of a drawn series which is why it surprised so many people.”
Then came the disappointment. Warburton has never experienced anything other than defeat when facing the All Blacks with Wales, but he had left home with the genuine belief that the Lions could do what so few have been able to before them.
“People might think it’s naïve or whatever but whenever I play against teams you’ve always got to think you’re going to win and we did prove it,” he said. “We proved that on another day we could have won — if you win one game you can win two and that’s the Test series.
“I always believed that from day one and so did the guys, to be honest. When you’ve got 41 of the most competitive guys from four countries, if they don’t think they can win then who is?”
In the grand scheme of things it has not taken long for Warburton’s frustration to turn to pride. His Lions squad were the first since 1971 to return from New Zealand having not lost the Test series, while they came within touching distance of achieving what many believed they couldn’t.
“Looking back, in the second Test we ended a 40-odd game home winning streak. [So] when you suddenly think we got a win and a draw then, you think ‘Oh crikey, we didn’t do as bad as I first thought’,” Warburton added.
“As time goes on, when you say undefeated in New Zealand that puts a slightly nicer twist on it.”
British & Irish Lions: Uncovered is out now on Blu-ray and DVD