This is not to say that this is his fault; merely a geographical quirk of his deeply ingrained heritage, which sees him support the Llanelli Scarlets, Wales and the British and Irish Lions, which, though he refuses to be drawn, are more than likely ranked in this order.
So it was with a euphoric smile almost as wide as Llanelli’s historic Stradee Park, that Big Mark basked in the afterglow of the Lions running out 24-21 winners in Wellington at the weekend. “This,” he said, “was hugely important for world rugby and sets the series up beautifully for the decider at Eden Park – especially since the Lions have not won a single Test in New Zealand since the 1993 tour.”
In this he was 100% right. The Lions are too much of a rugby institution – even though the long tours of the past are now a thing of history – to be relegated to the scrapheap of expediency under demands of high-pressure professional modern rugby. But again, Big Mark was thinking a step ahead of his audience from the assembled armchair critics.
“I know that the next thing you guys are going to say is that the red card the French referee handed Sonny Bill Williams meant the All Blacks played nearly three quarters of the match against 14 men, but that tackle Williams laid on Anthony Watson was as potentially lethal as the head-high hit Ireland’s CJ Stander made on Pat Lambie in the series against the Boks out here.
“Even worse perhaps because there seemed to be intent in the way Williams went in – no arms and shoulder straight at the head. It pointed to the serial cheating that is very much a part of All Black play.” Big Mark paused for a moment before gathering his thoughts fully to expand on this.
“Just think for a moment,” he continued. “When there’s a pile-up, there’s always an All Black jersey spreadeagled on the turf, waving his hands in the air and interfering with play. “When a New Zealand defensive line forms, they are invariably just that half-yard offside, stealing every possible advantage from the attackers. “And there are always two defenders – at least – running interference on the chasers following up on a high kick ahead. It seems like its bred into them to play this way.”
Big Mark shook his head in resignation at the wiles of the New Zealanders. But he wasn’t completely finished with the nuts and bolts of the Test, and – despite his Welsh allegiance – had some criticism of coach Warren Gatland. “Gats got it wrong with Marco Vunipola,” he said.
“After he had given away six points from two penalties inside the first half an hour, he should have substituted him for Jack McGrath straight away instead of waiting for him to pick up a yellow card for an extremely clumsy tackle in the 55th minute. “Still, a win’s a win … and two tries to the Lions against seven penalty kicks by Beauden Barratt must count for something. It does for me.”