Thursday 27 July 2017

Warren Gatland: We have poked the bear but have yet to see the All Blacks' expansive game

New Zealand 21 Lions 24

Conor Murray dives over to score the second try to get the Lions back in the game. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Conor Murray dives over to score the second try to get the Lions back in the game. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The hype around the Lions is too often over-done, but on the back of a special night in Wellington this group of players have history in their grasp.

Whatever about hyperbolic sporting immortality, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to win a series against the double world champions, to shift rugby's balance of power and to join the 1971 team as the All Black conquerors. For a number of them, it is a chance to win successive series.

They repaired to Queenstown last night to help take the pressure off the final week of a long, hard season. Their team-mates back home are already preparing for 2017/'18, but this campaign has long been dominated by this tour and the series has delivered in spades.

While the Lions decompress, New Zealand made their way back to Auckland to lick their wounds.

Their mettle has been tested and while they have no right to be aggrieved about the 25th-minute red card issued to Sonny Bill Williams by Jerome Garces that ultimately changed the game, they are sure to use it as fuel to the fire internally.

They remain the best team in the world, but the Lions have exposed vulnerabilities. On Saturday, the Lions almost won despite themselves.

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Played in desperate conditions, this was a game that almost defied analysis because of its back-and-forth nature.

You had the Lions starting well and dominating the first quarter, only to go 3-0 behind; the All Blacks then responding to the red card by owning possession and territory but failing to capitalise on the tourists' dreadful discipline as Beauden Barrett's kicking inaccuracy cost his side dear.

Slipped

And then, just as it looked to have slipped beyond them, the Lions kicked into gear in the final quarter; outscoring their hosts 15-3 from the 59th minute on, scoring two tries of real quality and then holding their nerve to win the crucial penalty which Owen Farrell knocked over.

Jonathan Sexton. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It was a great win, but it was far from a great performance and the knowledge that they have much to improve will be a fillip in this final week as they prepare for the 'Blacklash'.

"There were a lot of things on Saturday I wasn't happy about," Gatland (pictured) conceded. "I wasn't happy about some of the penalties and the discipline. I am happy we got ourselves out of a hole and showed some real character and courage, I am happy with our physicality.

"We've got to make sure we don't give away stupid and soft penalties - key players were guilty of that. That needs to improve. Our kicking game needs to be more accurate.

"The ironic thing is this is the best team in the world and, for two Test matches, they really haven't stressed us.

"They have squeezed us, made us give away penalties and that has been to our downfall, but we haven't seen the expansive rugby that the All Blacks are known for - creating havoc.

"We've coped with that and if we can continue to cope with that and improve in other areas, then we are going to see, hopefully, a great Test match.

"We have poked the bear, but hopefully the wounded Lion from last week is still recovering as well."

The All Blacks accepted the Williams red card with stoicism, but had they queried Jerome Garces' consistency they might have had a case.

The French referee stayed strong to correctly dismiss the centre for an ugly shoulder charge that connected squarely with Anthony Watson's head, but he deemed Mako Vunipola's elbow to Barrett's face as a yellow and missed Seán O'Brien's swinging arm that left Waisake Naholo needing a Head Injury Assessment.

Television Match Official George Ayoub did review the incident, but waved play on but O'Brien was then cited as the commissioner reckoned it was a red card. Ultimately, a three-man panel from Australia sided with the Irish flanker.

The dismissal of the citing is a huge boost to the team. O'Brien was immense at the forefront of a confrontational pack effort.

After their pride was questioned by their coach in the build-up, the forwards responded with a mean display but too often their aggression cost them silly penalties that on another day would have denied them this shot at history.

Maro Itoje was magnificent, Alun Wyn Jones in redemptive mode, while Sam Warburton justified his coach's faith and O'Brien carried the game to the All Blacks while also acting as a bouncer for the 10-12 axis.

Johnny Sexton showed why he should have started the first Test, his restarts were right on the money and his delayed passing caused the home side real problems.

The two tries were as timely as they were well-constructed, the first coming as an almost instant response to going nine points down as the backline swept the ball right for Watson who surged up the right, Itoje took the ball on grittily and then they went wide left where Faletau was waiting to power through Israel Dagg.

Barrett's penalty made it a seven-point game, but this time the Lions went through the world champions with Jon Davies and Jamie George making gains before Conor Murray reprised his Chicago try from close-range.

Farrell levelled matters and in the endgame it was a case of who could hold their nerve.

The Lions' defence remained patient in the face of 14 men, their discipline held and when Ngane Laumape knocked on their took their chance.

All they needed was an All Black to blink and Charlie Faumuina obliged, taking Kyle Sinckler in the air and Farrell punished him. Having righted the wrongs of Eden Park, they'll need to up it again for the grand finale.

Intensity

"I'd like to think so," Jones said when asked if they can lift their intensity further.

"When you quantify intensity is it being accurate? Is it keeping them down, not putting the ball out dead?

"I think if we can do all these things and maintain that intensity for a longer period it should go some way towards improving our performance for next week.

"The 15-20 minutes after half-time, sometimes it's easier not to try as hard and I think those penalties were us trying too hard because we knew we were in the ascendancy in the first half."

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.

Ref - J Garces (France)

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