Monday 25 September 2017

Redemption for Gatland after Lions make most of Williams' dismissal

New Zealand 21 British & Irish Lions 24

Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions following the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions following the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O'Connor at Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Those who spent the week sticking a red nose on Warren Gatland's face ended up with red faces in the end and the Lions coach wasn't about to let them forget it.

Humiliated by his nation's biggest newspaper in midweek as they portrayed him as a clown in a prominent cartoon, the Kiwi revelled in yesterday's win over his home country - the first of his long career.

Sean O'Brien of the British & Irish Lions during the Second Test match. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien of the British & Irish Lions during the Second Test match. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

His team rode their luck and made heavy weather of beating a New Zealand side diminished by Sonny Bill Williams' fully-deserved red card on 25 minutes, but there was satisfaction to be taken from the way they wrested momentum back from the world champions, out-scoring them 15-3 in the final quarter as Owen Farrell kept his cool at the critical moment to deliver the match-winning penalty.

It was an imperfect night with a fairy-tale ending, but, as Sam Warburton rather clunkily said in the post-match press conference, the third half hasn't started yet.

They will need to be better again next week, tightening up their discipline will be a top priority. All 21 of the All Blacks' points came from the boot of Beauden Barrett and he missed three kicks a world-class goal-kicker should make in his sleep.

Mako Vunipola's moment of madness might have seen him join Williams in getting a red card, but referee Jerome Garces chose yellow and the extra man counted in the end.

Liam Williams of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Rieko Ioane of New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Liam Williams of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Rieko Ioane of New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

They go to Queenstown today buoyed by the win, backed by a massive contingent of travelling fans and will decompress at the resort for two days before ramping things up again for the weekend.

While they do so, the All Blacks will stew and their coaches will scheme and the backlash will be fierce; it always is.

But for now, this was Gatland's moment.

"The last couple of weeks in terms of the criticism and personal attacks has been a little bit tough to take, not so much for myself, more for family members," he said.

"Ironically, the Kiwis public are probably the fairest people you will ever come across.

"They have no idea how much it has galvanised us as a group in terms of the good luck messages we have received from Kiwis, people shaking your hands and saying well done, ex-All Blacks contacting us saying I hope you do well and that some of the personal stuff in the press has been over the top.

"There is a huge proportion of Lions fans and Kiwis wanting us to do well and saying the criticism has been unfair.

"So, ironically, it's actually been a huge positive, so whoever's been doing it, keep doing it because it's not working and it's actually worked for us."

The coach's selections were vindicated. Sam Warburton and Maro Itoje brought huge physicality to the game while Johnny Sexton (below) was excellent, bringing all of his experience to bear in treacherous conditions and comfortably outplaying Beauden Barrett.

The All Black No 10 had a nightmare off the tee, leaving nine easy points behind and while Hansen said he would not reconsider his kicking policy next week he must have his doubts about going into a crucial game without a reliable option.

Despite his misses, the Lions handed Barrett enough chances to establish as good a lead as a team with 14 men could hope for through the continuous cheap concession of penalties.

Itoje was guilty, Vunipola was brainless and even Conor Murray had to put his hands up for two, but when they went down by nine points and lost the English prop, the Lions took the negative out-look and turned it into a positive.

Their pressure from one of Sexton's many brilliant restarts and a hard chase forced TJ Perenara to rush his kick to touch, handing the tourists field position.

They went for it, going off the top from Warburton and swinging right using a trademark Sexton wraparound and releasing Anthony Watson up the touchline.

With the world champions stretched, they went wide again; defying the conditions with some sublime passing to put Taulupe Faletau one-on-one with Israel Dagg in the left corner and there was only going to be one winner.

Farrell missed the conversion and Barrett extended the lead, but another restart chase forced the outhalf to rush his touch and again the Lions trusted their skills.

Jamie George found Itoje at the tail and Sexton sent Jon Davies up the middle. George popped up on a superb line to take his side over the gain-line and Murray picked and drove over the line.

Farrell held his nerve and delivered the winning penalty after Kyle Sinckler hung in the air and was taken out by Charlie Faumuina.

They held out in the closing moments for a famous win. The focus soon switched to earning a place in history.

"We take a huge amount of confidence in terms of we stepped up physically, which was the challenge, we scored a couple of nice tries," Gatland said.

"We know historically when New Zealand teams lose they respond and there's no better example than what happened in Chicago last year and then in Dublin in the following game. We know we are going to be in for an almighty battle in Eden Park next week.

"But we have come out of tonight with some belief and confidence. We kept the All Blacks try-less, I don't know the last time that happened. In the first two Test matches, they haven't really stretched us from an attacking perspective.

"We are the ones who have played some pretty positive rugby. We improved in certain areas and will look to improve on others. Hopefully it will be one hell of a Test match in Eden Park next week."

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