There was a point in Saturday’s second test between the British & Irish Lions, just after the start of the second half, where Sky Sports’ Will Greenwood noted that, with the scores tied at 9-9, the weather taking on British-like qualities and the All Blacks permanently down to 14 men following Sonny Bill Williams’ shoulder charge on Anthony Watson’s head, this was a game the Lions had to win – that there would be no better opportunity to notch a fabled victory over the world champions and take the series into a third, and decisive, test.
The Lions achieved this, their 24-21 victory historic in many ways (the first defeat the All Blacks had suffered on home soil for eight years, the first time in 39 games they had failed to score a try), and the manner of their victory – committed, determined and hard-working until the last – was hugely impressive.
But it does come with the caveat that they were playing a team who had seen their own attacking game plan undone by the sending off, and had Beauden Barrett worn the kicking boots he had on in the first test then, even a man down, New Zealand would have eked out a test-claiming win.
So while many were overcome by the Lions victory (most embarrassingly Sky’s Graham Simmons, whose hysterical post-game interviews were undercut by the Lions’ honest response that the job was only half done and that it means little if the test series isn’t won outright), there was plenty to unpick and to work on if the Lions are to achieve the “immortality” that Simmons so passionately spoke of.
Discipline was the key area, the Lions giving far too many penalties away and only Barrett’s weakness with the boot kept them in touch on the scoreboard. On any other day this would have sounded the death knell for the Lions, but there was something in the air on Saturday, a chink of vulnerability in the All Blacks’ armour that can hopefully be found and exploited again on Saturday.
Already rattled by Williams’ 24th minute sending off (the first for an All Black in 50 years), Barrett’s malfunctioning kicking was hardly likely to soothe the nerves but the Lions, conscious of the numerical advantage, were all too often guilty of forcing play, looking for the spaces that weren’t there – cooler heads eventually prevailed.
Yet having gone in at the interval level at 9-9, they started the second half like a team who didn’t know what they were doing, conceding penalty after penalty and playing some of the worst rugby of the tour.
For nearly 20 minutes it seemed as if the All Blacks would wind the game down and claim the win, especially as the numerical advantage was evened up by the yellow card given to Mako Vunipola.
But then came a moment of magic as Taulupe Faletau burst down the left after good patient work, and though Owen Farrell’s conversion missed, it took the Lions to within four points, 18-14, having played terribly.
When Barrett landed a penalty to take the score to 21-14, again there seemed no way back for the Lions but again they found one, as Conor Murray darted over from close range, giving Farrell an easier conversion to level the scores at 21-21.
With the scores level, and all to play for, this was where the Lions needed to press home the advantage – back to a full complement, it was now or never, anything less than the win the least they deserved.
With four minutes remaining, the opportunity opened up as Kyle Sinckler won a penalty after being tackled in the air (arguably a contentious decision, as Philip Irwin notes below) and Farrell kicked the three points that earned a series-levelling win, leaving it all to play for at Eden Park this Saturday.
Taking away the negatives for a moment, there is no arguing that this win for the Lions was a massive, massive statement of intent.
The better team on the day, they deserved the result, and a win will give the players and management the filip they need for Saturday.
Momentum has been a key word of this tour since the get-go, and the Lions have it at the most crucial time, a date with destiny in a stadium where the All Blacks haven’t lost since 1994.
The performances were immense, Alun Wyn Jones deflecting the criticism that came his way after the first test to deliver an outstanding shift, while the power and impact of Maro Itoje and captain Sam Warburton gave the team more propulsion at the breakdown and disrupted the All Blacks.
In the backs the decision to drop Ben Te’o and bring Owen Farrell in at inside centre, with Jonny Sexton moving to outside-half, paid off; Te’o was immensely unlucky to be the odd man out in that situation, and you have to query if the Sexton/Farrell axis will hold up to All Black scrutiny come Saturday.
Selection this week will be tricky for Warren Gatland and his coaches – after all, how do you change a winning team?
The answer is you have to adapt what you have and pick the players best suited for a gameplan that Gatland will feel is capable of inflicting a second straight defeat on the All Blacks, who will no doubt be keen not to fall to the Lions again.
As Gatland put it, “We’ve poked the bear”. The question is now do these Lions have the roar and bite to finish the job off, or will the bear be too fired up and powerful?
We’ll find out Saturday.
Could vital Lions penalty set a dubious precedent? writes PHILIP IRWIN...
While I am as thrilled as the next man or woman that the series is going to a decider in Eden Park, I’m worried about the final Lion’s penalty.
Murray’s pass to Kyle Sinckler was higher than ideal, but he had no need to jump to catch it. Of course, if he had stretched out above his head to catch it, substutute prop Charlie Fuimuina was all set for a crash tackle into his solar plexus.
As it was, I do think Fuimuina was committed to the tackle and couldn’t pull out. I thought Sinckler’s outrage (which seemed to continue after the whistle) was a bit precious.
Would he have been outraged if his knee had caught the tackler in the face? Older readers may remember an incident involving JPR and Scottish wing Billy Steele which, I think, left JPR with a broken jaw.
However, the long term implications are worrying. What if backs start giving a slightly higher pass, so that the recipient can jump and catch it? The catcher would be untouchable, and his momentum would probably take him five yards over the gain line by the time he touched down. He could even be in the clear all the way to the line.
I can’t help feeling that a few defence coaches might agree with me on this!