Friday 18 August 2017

An anti-climax to be proud of

New Zealand 15 Lions 15

The Lions and All Blacks are left to hold a share of the spoils in Auckland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The Lions and All Blacks are left to hold a share of the spoils in Auckland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

At the end of 240 minutes of the most intense, aggressive and high-stakes rugby, the two teams were left wondering what to make of it all and the referee was once again the centre of attention.

Romain Poite's decision to down-grade a 78th-minute penalty to a scrum after reviewing the incident on the big screen will be debated for a while yet and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was quite clear in his belief that the French official had erred.

Hansen noted how the Lions’ defence had pressurised his team into uncharacteristic errors. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images
Hansen noted how the Lions’ defence had pressurised his team into uncharacteristic errors. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Instead of blaming the referee, he took aim at World Rugby's failure to simplify their law-book; Poite could choose from one of three laws when making a decision on whether Ken Owens had played the ball from an offside position at a pivotal point of a career-defining series.

At any other stage of the game, he wouldn't have thought twice but he knew the stakes, having acted as an assistant referee in the previous two Tests. So, every moment of the incident was reviewed and scrutinised in minute detail.

Was Kieran Read in front of Beauden Barrett when he kicked off? Did Read, as the Lions claimed, make illegal contact with Liam Williams in the air, forcing the Welshman to spill the ball? Did the ball even travel forward? Was Owens' momentum carrying him into the ball and does his lack of intent matter?

And finally, as Hansen pointed out, could they not have carried on with the advantage, given Anton Lienert-Brown picked the ball up and was headed for the posts?

Elliot Daly of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Israel Dagg of New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Elliot Daly of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Israel Dagg of New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ultimately, Poite chose a compromise and told a mystified Read that he would "do a deal" on the call, opting for a scrum for accidental offside.

The All Blacks mustered one last attack but they came up short of scoring and the match ended in stalemate, the series drawn.

It will go down as a great Lions campaign, a redemptive six weeks for Warren Gatland and a remarkable achievement by coach and players who overcame a horrendous schedule and all the bookies' predictions to scrap their way to parity with the world champions.

They have exposed fault-lines in the All Black façade, building on Ireland's November win to take a set of results back to their own nations with the promise of more to come at the 2019 World Cup.

Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Sam Whitelock of New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Sam Whitelock of New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

And yet, for all of that, the referee was at the centre of a storm, just as Jaco Peyper and Jerome Garces had been in the previous two weeks.

"I have always said the game is extremely difficult to referee," Hansen said. "(Along with) Nigel Owens, they are supposedly the three best referees in the game. There will always be human error. What we have to do is help them, not bag them.

"We need to find ways of helping them have less moments like we did throughout the series. That is a World Rugby thing. We have got to help the referees so it becomes easier and more simple to referee the game.

"It is a really complicated game. With all the sections in the laws, there is one of the problems. Do I go there, or there, or there? Rather than is it, or isn't it?

"When we have things with multiple interpretations there will always be human error. There is no point us being frustrated. We had plenty of chances to win the game.

Malakai Fekitoa of New Zealand is tackled by British and Irish Lions players, from left, Jack McGrath, Rhys Webb and Anthony Watson. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Malakai Fekitoa of New Zealand is tackled by British and Irish Lions players, from left, Jack McGrath, Rhys Webb and Anthony Watson. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"It was a game we could have won and if we had taken the opportunities we created… we would have won. It was an average way for it to finish but that is sport sometimes. We have got to accept that and move on and get better at what we have tried to do.

"Our problem in the first two Tests was that we didn't play enough rugby. It has been a good series for us, it has put us under a bit of pressure and we have to deal with that mentally. "

In particular, Hansen noted how the Lions' defence had pressurised his team into uncharacteristic errors.

Andy Farrell's emphasis on line-speed was one of the big wins for the Lions, but the red line was stretched by a vicious opening 30 minutes from a wounded All Black side that saw Beauden Barrett pull the strings and his brother Jordie score a try and get an assist for another for fellow newcomer Ngani Laumape.

They threw the kitchen sink at the tourists, but at half-time there was just six points between the teams thanks to a succession of let-offs. Elliot Daly's penalty just after half-time narrowed it to three, and when Jerome Kaino was sent to the sin-bin, the Lions attempted to make their move.

But they didn't have it in them, scoring just three points in the 10-minute period and they finished the game hanging on and needing a massive refereeing call to keep them level.

Not that there's any guarantee that Beauden Barrett, who again missed crucial kicks, would have taken the chance.

"Did we play well? Yeah, we played well enough to win the thing. We just didn't win it," Hansen said.

Trust

"People have just got to stay calm and trust that we do know a little bit about what we're doing. It's never going to be plain sailing, there's always going to be a road-bump and it's how we deal with the road-bump when it comes.

"We've had a bit of a road-bump against a team that was full of quality athletes, they were well coached right across the board and we've drawn the series with them.

"You can either look at is and say we did alright, or say we didn't do what we wanted to do, but we didn't lose the thing either. It is what it is and we have to deal with that."

The series will go down as a success, but the grand finale ended with a damp squib.

Perhaps it was a fair result, but both teams will have regrets.

"It's been a special series to play in," said Lions captain Sam Warburton.

"You always want to win, but I guess we have done the Lions jersey proud and I am sure people will be looking forward to the next tour in four years' time.

"If I had to I would probably have tossed a coin and gone for the win, with extra-time or golden point or something. It would have made for an amazing climax. I think it would be nice to see a winner."

It wasn't to be and the man in the middle bore the brunt of the frustration with the lack of a clear outcome.

NEW ZEALAND - J Barrett; I Dagg, A Lienert-Brown, N Laumape (M Fekitoa 67 HIA), J Savea (A Cruden 73); B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara 74); J Moody (W Crockett 58), C Taylor (N Harris 73), O Franks (C Faumuina 58); B Retallick, S Whitelock (; J Kaino, S Cane (A Savea 60), K Read (capt).

LIONS - L Williams; A Watson (J Nowell 73), J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton (B Te'o HIA 48-54, 73), C Murray (R Webb 69); M Vunipola (J McGrath 60), J George (K Owens 70), T Furlong (K Sinckler 60); M Itoje, AW Jones (C Lawes 50); S Warburton (capt, AW Jones 67-73), S O'Brien (CJ Stander h-t), T Faletau.

Ref - R Poite (France)

 

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