British and Irish Lions skipper Sam Warburton was left speechless after a 15-15 draw with New Zealand in Auckland meant the Test series was tied.
The tourists headed into the Eden Park clash knowing they could become the first Lions side to win a Test series in New Zealand since 1971.
But, having trailed 12-6 at half-time, the Lions were reliant on a 78th-minute penalty from Owen Farrell to secure a 1-1 draw across the three matches.
Warburton told Sky Sports: “It is a difficult one, it has got to be a first. It is difficult as players, if you go through the pressure and the emotion of the week, it is all geared towards winning.
“But, I guess, it is better than losing. We didn’t lose the series. To be honest, I am a bit speechless, I don’t know what to make of that. I was ready to go into extra-time! My legs weren’t, they are cramping up everywhere.
“To come to the double world champs, what they have done over the last six to eight years was incredible, so to come here and not get beaten, we can take some credit for that.
“We can take some positives from a draw but, as players, we are gutted not to take that win.”
New Zealand captain Kieran Read, playing his 100th Test, echoed Warburton’s thoughts following the draw.
“I feel pretty hollow, to be honest,” Read said.
“When you walk away with a draw, it doesn’t really mean much. I will probably look at it in the future with a bit more pride.”
Maro Itoje, one of the Lions’ stars of the tour, was a little disappointed not to condemn the All Blacks to back-to-back home defeats for the first time since 1998.
“We are a little bit unsatisfied, we came here to win but we didn’t quite do that,” he said.
“I don’t think we played that perfect game. But New Zealand are a top team. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what we wanted. Life goes on.”
Despite the result, Itoje was proud of his efforts.
“I am incredibly honoured and proud to be part of this team,” he added.
“One of the best six or seven weeks of my life. To wear this red jersey is a dream come true for me. I can’t read the future but I am definitely going to try (to play for Lions again).”
Thirteen months ago Jordie Barrett found himself on a wet Tuesday afternoon in East Manchester facing up to a rampant Irish pack.
The then 19-year-old was a part of an Under-20 team that fell to a surprise 33-24 loss to Ireland, becoming the first New Zealand age group team in history to lose to an Irish team.
The kid from New Plymouth had a mixed day, scoring the first try but landing just two kicks at goals from five attempts.
One year and 28 days later the now 20-year-old faces a very different assignment – starting at full- back for the All Blacks in the third and deciding Test of a dramatic Lions series.
It’s a big call by New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.
It’s the biggest match in rugby union since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final and the biggest in New Zealand since the 2011 RWC final. And that’s not my description.
All Black players, not known for their over-statements, have openly been talking this week about this game being as big as a RWC decider. A fair bit of pressure then …
And in to that high-pressure environment, with everything on the line, the coach throws the youngest of four Barrett brothers.
It’s not to say Jordie, whose pet hate is being called Jordan, may not rise to the challenge – perform out of his skin – and the All Blacks record yet another famous victory. But the odds are against such a scenario playing out.
You have to ask the question, is it fair of Hansen, a usually astute man manager, to put such extraordinary pressure on a young man playing just his second match for the All Blacks and making his run on Test debut?
Jordie only made his provincial debut for Canterbury in August last year, before that he was playing club rugby as he weighed up choosing between a career in rugby or cricket, a sport where he also excelled as a fast bowler.
He made his Super Rugby debut just a few months ago, so Hansen is expecting a lot of a player in his second year of professional rugby, who is also playing out of position.
On the Hurricanes website Barrett is listed at the position he played for the NZ Under 20 team last year – inside centre. In the Mitre 10 Cup final last year he played at outside centre. At the start of the season he was only the second choice Hurricanes full-back behind Nehe Milner-Skudder, who has not been selected.
But now he must fill arguably the most important position in arguably the most important Test in years.
And be sure of one thing – the Lions will keep Barrett busy. Every chance he gets Conor Murray will be booting the ball high into Auckland night sky and the Lions back three sprinting through to put the pressure on.
We have already seen in this series just how important box-kicks have been as an attacking weapon and the Lions will like their chances of getting some great opportunities from the youngest of the Barrett boys.
Physically Jordie is up for it. At 1.96m and 96kgs he is almost 10 cms taller and five kgs heavier than his more famous brother, Beauden.
But in these big matches it’s all about experience and that is something Jordie does not have.
In fact the selection smacks of desperation and shows a surprising lack of depth in the All Blacks ranks. After Ben Smith was injured, Hansen gave the No15 jersey to Israel Dagg who after a less than impressive second Test has been shuffled to the wing.
“He’s very good in the air and he’s also a good defender,” Hansen assures of Barrett. “We have worked hard on his positioning and he is a quality player.”
As for Jordie himself he is trying to appear calm. “Whatever comes my way, comes my way,” he said enigmatically. “It is just about controlling it.”
But how much of this high pressure Test will he be able to control? The Lions’ own 20-year-old boy wonder Maro Itoje found himself over-awed in the second Test last Saturday, and he has two Six Nations campaigns and a European Cup victory already under his belt.
If Barrett lives up to Hansen’s faith, a new All Blacks legend is born. But if he doesn’t, he may find himself on the sidelines very early and with an ignominious loss blemishing a promising young career.
While on the field the game is thriving in the Emirates, the country’s mounting economic concerns are having a huge knock-on effect off the pitch.
Sponsorships are drying up because companies are increasingly tightening their belts, while pitch hire fees continue to sky rocket to astronomical levels. And whereas there has always and will continue to be a myriad of players switching allegiances during the off-season, clubs are finding it harder to keep hold of star names as rivals dangle carrots that are increasingly difficult to match.
Sponsoring rugby events and teams in the UAE has and continues to be big business. The Dubai Sevens is backed by HSBC, while Dubai Exiles swapped one brand giant for another last year when Porsche replaced Canterbury as their principal jersey sponsor.
Three seasons ago the majority of Dubai-based clubs played for free at The Sevens as part of their participation in the UAE Premiership or Conference. Now, second-tier clubs fork out in the region of Dh6,000 per game for pitch hire, a post-match meal and one drink per player.
It’s not as if the oil price crash the country is currently gripped by has affected only small fry like Wasps though. It shows no favourtism, with last year’s leading lights, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, falling foul of faltering finances.
The club has this summer lost long-time backer Etihad Airways, meaning it could be forced to pull the plug on its regionally renowned youth tournament next season, while as it stands, 3,000 playing and training jerseys and vests will be arriving without a main sponsor.
The club parted with Dh773,000 last season for 1,104 hours of use of its home field at Zayed Sports City – which advertises a full pitch for hire at Dh750 per session.
Exiles, meanwhile, are set to cut all post-match meals for players next season after spending Dh65,000 last season.
Yet, while every team is floundering to stay afloat, the action and athletes on the field continue to flourish.
The standard of the UAE and West Asia Premiership has visibly increased each year, with Apollo Perelini picking his UAE squad for this year’s Asia Rugby Championship exclusively from the top division for the first time.
The UAE are ranked 72nd by World Rugby – the highest they have been since joining in December 2012 – which is testament to the growing standard of the game here.
Yet, the success on the green and gold pitches of grass and sand goes hand in hand with the growing distress off it, with clubs increasingly being driven into the red.
It can’t continue like this. If clubs like Wasps wilt and die, it won’t be long before others and the game in general gets stung too.