After 240-minutes of high-octane rugby, nothing could separate the All Blacks and British & Irish Lions.
It is just the second time the Lions have drawn a series and though there was an anti-climactic feel at Eden Park when the full-time whistle went, both sides emerged with heaps of credit.
We tease out the five talking points with an eye to the future in mind – it’s just a shame we will have to wait 12 years for the next episode of this particular rivalry.
This tour may be in the history books but it will certainly be preserved for posterity.
It has been a huge success, showing that a group of players who were thrown into action just three days after landing in New Zealand can represent a fabled concept so well – and take so much pride in it.
Even with the realignment of the rugby calendar and health issues in the spotlight, surely the Lions will survive.
It was one of the most pulsating, helter-skelter, edge-of-the-seat Test matches of all-time – but it certainly was not the most accurate.
The All Blacks committed 11 knock-ons and the Lions were hardly better, coming in with a costly nine.
Compare that to the second Test, in which the teams conceded five handling errors apiece in often torrential conditions. Both camps will be thinking of what could have been.
I make it the Lions only led the All Blacks for three minutes in the entire series and they managed to get a draw. Stay in the fight!— Simon Thomas (@simonrug) July 8, 2017
Gatland has had to deal with charges of Welsh favouritism ever since he announced his team, but his decisions have been fully justified.
Taulupe Faletau’s all-action displays softened the loss of Billy Vunipola while Liam Williams brought some excitement to the backs, and Jonathan Davies was arguably the man of the tour at outside centre.
The much-maligned duo of Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, thought of as both off-form ahead of the second Test, did much of the unseen work in stopping New Zealand’s quick ball.
Congratulations to the Lions & New Zealand on a tremendous Test series. Not what they wanted but the Lions deserve huge credit for this.— Brian Moore (@brianmoore666) July 8, 2017
Welcome to Test rugby, Jordie Barrett – it looks like we’ll be seeing quite a lot of you in the next decade.
The 20-year-old was sensational on debut, in a Lions series decider no less, knocking down his brother’s kick for Ngani Laumape’s try before getting over himself.
He and elder brother Beauden have an almost telepathic understanding. Rieko Ioane (2) and Laumape also scored in the series on their full starts. The All Blacks should be alright going forward…
If Warren Gatland had designs on the All Blacks job, he had to shake off his reputation for one-dimensional rugby while also forging a side that could compete with the world’s best. Both boxes have been ticked.
The Lions’ attack grew into the tour, while their rush defence for the most part put the shackles on their hosts.
He is still an outsider to take over after the 2019 World Cup – up against All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster – but he’s given himself hope.
To paraphrase Dickens: “It was the best of tests, it was the worst of Tests.”
It was hard to decide whether you were witnessing one of the greatest tests of all times or one of the worst, such was the haphazard nature of this crazy match.
When Sonny Bill Williams was rightly red carded after just 24 minutes on a wet night in Wellington you expected the Lions to grind out a victory against the 14-man All Blacks. But instead it was the world champions who went against type, keeping it tight, picking and driving and kicking the Lions into submission.
Fly half Beauden Barrett knocked over seven penalty goals and he missed another three which would have given the home team the Test and the series. But the Lions kept the All Blacks try less, for the first time since 2014, and they also brought to an end an undefeated streak in New Zealand that stretched back 47 Tests to September 2009.
The curious thing was the Lions only had to play for two and a half minutes to do it – all coming in the last quarter of the match. Two minutes was all it took to grab two tries – a strong finish by Toby Faletau and a quick snipe by Conor Murray – and the other thirty seconds was for replacement prop Kyle Sinckler to fortuitously win the penalty that Farrell converted to win the Test.
For the rest of the match the Lions were pretty dreadful, doing everything they possibly could to lose– even though they were up against just 14 men. They gave away 13 penalties – seven in a row in the second half – with Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola both guilty numerous times, Vunipola also earning a yellow card for a mindless clear out on Barrett.
If the shocking discipline wasn’t enough of an advantage to give to the All Blacks, the Lions also lost two lineouts, one scrum, missed 11 tackles, conceded 11 turnovers, made six handling errors, kicked over the dead ball twice and had just 39 per cent of possession and 42 per cent of territory.But somehow the tourists found a way to win against a disjointed All Blacks that truth be told looked out of sorts even before SBW was sent off.
The red card will be the key talking point of the match and credit must go to Jerome Garces for following World Rugby’s directions about head contact and standing his ground to send off one of the most famous rugby players in the world in one of the most eagerly awaited tests in years. Many other refs would have bottled it but Garces had no hesitation although he instantly made himself the most hated man in New Zealand – and the Kiwis have long memories, just ask Wayne Barnes.
In the same situation would Craig Joubert also have shown red? Referee’s assistant Jaco Peyper, who refereed the first Test, started to try to talk Garces down to yellow but the Frenchman was having none of it.
The credit for the victory must go to the Lions players, many of whom were outstanding – Faletau, Sean O’Brien and Jamie George – and Courtney Lawes and Sinckler coming off the bench had a notable impact.
But most credit much go to the recently maligned Lions coach Warren Gatland who risked it all on an attacking approach starting Johnny Sexton and Farrell together, which eventually paid off in the final hectic minutes. Gatland also put his faith in two of his Wales stalwarts – Alun Wyn Jones and captain Sam Warburton – and both delivered for their coach.
Wyn Jones was vastly improved on his limp first Test effort and Warburton did exactly what he was asked to do – disrupt the breakdowns and slow the All Blacks ball down. Never have I seen such slow ball for the All Blacks and often scrum half Aaron Smith was forced to wait up to five seconds to clear the ball. That hesitation made New Zealand easier to contain.
It was a great result for rugby and a result the tour desperately needed. The interest (and ratings) in the decider next week will now skyrocket. And now the Lions must do it all again and defeat the All Blacks at a venue where they have haven’t lost for 23 years.
After this madcap Test good luck to any one picking a winner.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man – and in the eyes of British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, that man is Johnny Sexton on Saturday in Wellington.
With the Lions one down in the series and needing to win the second Test to keep the series alive, the Ireland fly-half has been landed the greatest challenge of his career to try and mastermind a victory over the rampant All Blacks.
Gatland is stuck in something of a time-warp, calling on the heroes of four years ago who clinched a famous Lions series victory in Australia. On a stunning night in Sydney the Lions won the third Test of that series 41-16 with Sexton at 10, Jonathan Davies at outside centre, Alun Wyn Jones at lock, Sean O’Brien at flanker and Toby Faletau at No8.
Three other Lions starters on Saturday came off the bench in 2013 – prop Mako Vunipola, scrum half Conor Murray, and inside centre/fly-half Owen Farrell. Sam Warburton, who captains the tourists, was also skipper in 2013 but tellingly missed the third Test due to injury with in-form Dan Lydiate starting alongside O’Brien and Faletau.
Two other 2017 Lions who started in Sydney in 2013, George North and Leigh Halfpenny, miss out on this Test – Halfpenny is dropped and North through injury. You cannot blame Gatland for putting his faith in the Lions (and Wales) stars who have brought triumphs to him in the past, but this is 2017 and not 2013 and on Saturday they face Steve Hansen’s All Blacks not Robbie Dean’s Wallabies.
The impressive effort of four years ago will not get the Lions over the line and indeed it can be argued that the Lions of 2017 are no match for the 2013 vintage. Many of those who featured four years ago are no longer at the same standard – Alun Wyn Jones, Warburton, to name two, and most notably Sexton.
The 31-year-old Leinster playmaker was breathtaking that night at ANZ Stadium but has not been the same player since he suffered a number of concussions in the 2015-16 season, though he was outstanding when Ireland beat the All Blacks in Chicago last November.
He only played three of this year’s Six Nations matches including the surprise loss to Wales in Cardiff – and his form was poor as Leinster were meekly knocked out of the semi-finals of both the Champions Cup by Clermont and the PRO12 by the Scarlets.
The loss in the PRO12 was especially galling as it came in Dublin to the tune of 27-15 and worryingly Sexton was unable to inspire his team to victory even in front of the passionate Leinster faithful.
Perhaps this is due to the ongoing toll of the head injuries, which actually stretch back to December 2014 when his then French club Racing Metro confirmed that he had suffered four concussions and as a result would serve a 12-week stand-down period. Then in 2015 after a heavy hit from French forward Louis Picamoles in the Rugby World Cup he was ruled of the quarter-final against Argentina, which Ireland lost heavily.
Certainly Sexton remains the target of many opposing defenders but it’s more his tackling technique that causes injuries as he goes in too high, leaving his head exposed. On Saturday of course he will need to deal with one Sonny Bill Williams who will be picking him out time and again in the defensive line and running straight at him.
Many of the Lions players this week – Warburton, Vunipola, even 22-year-old Maro Itoje – have said this is the most important/defining moment of their career. Despite the hyperbole that could be true for Sexton. He may go on to play a starring role for Ireland in the 2019 Rugby World Cup but to be truly regarded as a legend of the game he needs to win in New Zealand.
Gatland has risked the whole series on an attacking, ball-in-hand style on Saturday, which is like trying to outsprint Usain Bolt, and Sexton, along with Farrell, will be expected to out-manoeuvre the All Blacks. Sexton was poor against the NZ Barbarians and Blues, better against the Crusaders and Maori, and fair-to-middling in the first Test as he came off the bench for the last 23 minutes.
He will need to be back to his 2013 best – and then some – if the Lions are to stop the third Test becoming a damp squib.