Lions level test series with late surge in Wellington against 14-man All Blacks
All Blacks 21 Lions 24
The Lions will go to Auckland for a final Test decider with a chance of just their second series win after a night of controversy and drama in Wellington.
Sonny Bill Williams’ first-half red card handed Warren Gatland’s men a life-line but they struggled to take it, conceding far too many penalties before finally settling themselves and delivering a famous win, the first home defeat the world champions have suffered since 2009.
In front of 38,931, the game turned on referee Jerome Garces’ decision to issue Williams with a red card for a dangerous shoulder charge on Anthony Watson midway through the first-half but the Lions struggled to make their advantage count and were let off the hook by Beauden Barrett’s poor kicking as he missed three kickable penalties.
The French official was just the third referee to ever send an All Black off, the first since 1967 and he’s in for a rough week after choosing leniency after a brainless Mako Vunipola elbow on Barrett early in the second-half as the tourists’ ill-discipline threatened to undo them.
Two tries of high quality from Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray brought them level, however, and in the end it was a poor Charlie Faumuina tackle on Kyle Sinckler handed Farrell the chance to win it and he delivered.
On full-time, the Lions and their huge contingent of fans erupted but they’ll have it all to do next week and they’ll need to be better again.
They started well, playing the difficult conditions and bringing huge physicality with second-rows Alun-Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje putting in some crunching hits.
They had to be wary as the All Blacks were clearly trying to get Waisake Naholo into the game and the winger almost got in after Elliot Daly palmed Beauden Barrett’s cross-kick down, before he took a hard line off a midfield scrum.
Jerome Kaino powered through Farrell and Sean O’Brien went off his feet to hand Barrett a chance to open the scoring but the out-half missed from right in front.
The Lions again forced possession in the New Zealand half but again it passed without a score as Sam Cane forced a penalty on the deck and Barrett nudged the ball into Lions’ territory.
It was prime attacking position, but Itoje fought his way up the maul and forced a scrum turnover.
The Lions fans erupted, but the All Blacks knuckled down and forced a penalty from the scrum and this time Barrett made no mistake to open the scoring.
The lead barely lasted a minute as Brodie Retallick was penalised for blocking as Aaron Smith box-kicked and Owen Farrell landed a difficult kick to level.
The game turned in the 25th minute when Williams charged into Anthony Watson’s head, shoulder first and with little regard for his safety. The Lions were incensed and although play continued, Television Match Official (TMO) George Ayoub called him back.
After reviewing the incident, referee Garces reached for a red card.
Steve Hansen sent on Ngani Laumape for his debut, sacrificing flanker Jerome Kaino to keep a full complement of backs and it was the home side who restored his side’s after Murray came in from the side.
The kick allowed the tourists to regain composure and they cancelled the kick out instantly as Liam Williams forced Israel Dagg into spilling the kick-off, Itoje followed up and Sam Whitelock was penalised for not rolling away under his own posts.
Farrell made no mistake, but the kicking contest swung the other way as Murray’s box-kick went out on the full and the error was compounded by Mako Vunipola going off his feet at a ruck allowing Barrett to make it 9-6.
Before half-time the Lions had one last chance to edge in front, but their maul mal-functioned and they had to settle for three points as Farrell knocked over the final kick of the half after Retallick was penalised for putting his hands in the ruck.
Barrett should have nudged his side in front again thanks to Itoje straying offside after the restart, but he sent another easily kickable penalty wide.
Murray handed the fly-half another opportunity with a high tackle on Anton Lienert-Brown and this time he made no mistake to make it 12-9.
More poor discipline from Itoje allowed him extend the lead further, but he missed another easy chance but a stupid late hit from Mako Vunipola on Barrett saw him hit the target.
The England prop then dropped an elbow into the out-half’s face and he was blessed to only receive a yellow card. Jon Davies then strayed offside and Barrett made it a nine-point game.
The Lions struck back, working a brilliant wraparound on Sexton to send Watson surging up the right, before stretching the All Blacks left and using Farrell’s brilliant passing to find Liam Williams who fed Taulupe Faletau on the left and Dagg wasn’t stopping him.
Farrell missed the sideline conversion and then Elliot Daly kicked out on the full from the edge of his own ’22, handing the world champions prime attacking position.
Barrett punished yet more ill-discipline as Kyle Sinckler strayed offside to make the gap seven, but pressure from the kick-off forced Barrett to clear under pressure and the Lions had another chance to attack.
Jamie George hit Itoje at the tail and Murray sent Davies up the middle. George made big gains up the right, before the Irish scrum-half picked and backed himself to score.
This time Farrell nailed the conversion and the scores were level at 21-all with 10 minutes on the clock.
Aaron Cruden was then penalised for blocking as Daly chased his own kick, allowing Farrell to find touch but Jack McGrath and O’Brien got in a mix-up and were penalised for crossing.
Then, the home side creaked and Faumuina tackled Sinckler in the air. Farrell kept his cool and while the men in black kept trying they couldn’t find a way through.
The series decider awaits.
NEW ZEALAND – I Dagg; W Naholo (A Cruden 59 HIA), A Lienert-Brown, SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara 66); J Moody (W Crockett 53), C Taylor (N Harris 80), O Franks (C Famuina 53); B Retallick, S Whitelock (S Barrett 73); J Kaino (N Laumape 27), S Cane (A Savea 64), K Read (capt).
LIONS – L Williams; A Watson (J Nowell 25-31 HIA), J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola (J McGrath 66), J George, T Furlong (K Sinckler 62); M Itoje, AW Jones (C Lawes 59); S Warburton (capt), S O’Brien (J McGrath 64-66), T Fauletau.
Referee: J Garces (France)