Monday 26 February 2018

Tourists leave with heads held high - and a niggling sense of disappointment

New Zealand 15 British & Irish Lions 15

British and Irish Lions' Owen Farrell breaks during the third test of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour at Eden Park, Auckland. Photo: PA Wire
British and Irish Lions' Owen Farrell breaks during the third test of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour at Eden Park, Auckland. Photo: PA Wire
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When the final whistle sounded, the cauldron melted. Players in red and in black sank to their knees and an eerie silence descended over this corner of Auckland. After six weeks in New Zealand, the Lions leave with the respect of the locals - but they had come for the series.

Sam Warburton and Kieran Read lifted the trophy together and the two squads mixed in for a team photo. It had been an epic series, but it came to an anti-climactic conclusion. There was plenty of talk of kissing sisters in the aftermath, and when the dust settles it will be remembered as a great achievement, but it all rang a bit hollow in the immediate aftermath.

New Zealand's Ngani Laumape scores their first try. Photo: PA
New Zealand's Ngani Laumape scores their first try. Photo: PA

There was controversy over a 78th-minute incident when referee Romain Poite downgraded a kickable New Zealand penalty to a scrum, a decision that will rankle with the locals for some time. No one quite knew what to make of it all; the Lions were aware that they had defied expectations by holding the All Blacks to a draw, but it didn't sit right with them.

"It's a bit weird really. I suppose it is a brilliant achievement. At the same time it is never nice to be on the end of a draw," Owen Farrell said.

"This is a fantastic team we were playing against. Ours was put together not so long ago and it shows the quality of players that have been picked to have such little prep and be able to not just compete, but properly be up there and feel like we could have done better.

"We came here to win. We have always said that. There are some good players here, high-quality players, and when you start learning from each other and pushing each other, then you start putting performances together. And you see that later on in the tour."

British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland after the third rugby union Test match. Photo: Getty Images
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland after the third rugby union Test match. Photo: Getty Images

Played in perfect conditions, this third Test was a game both sides will reflect on with regret.

Uncharacteristically, New Zealand spurned a host of big chances to score tries, knocking on at crucial moments and failing to execute with their normal ruthless efficiency.

Operating with an inexperienced backline, they scored two tries through first-time starters Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape, but could have had more. Their first-half performance was an intense, furious response to the second-Test defeat but they couldn't get reward on the scoreboard.

After missing three kicks at goal in the 24-21 defeat last week, Beauden Barrett left five points behind him from eminently kickable positions, while Farrell and Elliot Daly delivered points for the Lions from difficult positions.

Barrett's cross-kicking was in marked contrast to his efforts off the tee, he set up the first try with a cross-kick to his younger brother, who batted the ball down to Laumape, before Laumape returned the favour to his Hurricanes team-mate with a brilliant off-load in the build-up to the second try before half-time.

Yet, the Lions hung in there through the boots of Farrell and Daly, who nailed a crucial long-ranger in the moments after half-time, and they worked their way into a position from which they could win the game - surviving the onslaught and then being in an opportunity to win it when Jerome Kaino saw yellow for a high shot on Alun-Wyn Jones.

They visited the New Zealand 22 but turned the ball over; hooker Jamie George suddenly got the yips.

With 20 minutes to go, Farrell levelled matters at 12-12 and the series was anyone's. Beauden Barrett nailed a scrum penalty, Wyatt Crockett got caught on the wrong side and Farrell sent over a leveller. Then came the big talking point.

Read chased the kick-off hard, careering into the airborne Liam Williams, who spilled the ball. It's questionable whether it went forward, but when a retreating Ken Owens played the ball, Poite awarded a penalty.

Warburton persuaded the referee to take a look, primarily at the tackle in the air, but the French official decided, in his own words, to "make a deal" as a compromise, downgrading the penalty to a scrum having reviewed the incident on the big screen.

Whether Beauden Barrett would have landed the penalty remains in doubt, and the All Blacks couldn't get over the line from the scrum, with Williams and CJ Stander saving the series with their tackles on Jordie Barrett before TJ Perenara was forced into touch.

It was a dramatic conclusion, but one that left nobody satisfied.

Extra-time would have seemed brutal after such a bruising encounter that left yet more questions over the processes around head injuries after Jones returned to the field of play to replace Warburton, who went off for his own Head Injury Assessment, one of three HIAs the Lions had to carry out on a night when Sean O'Brien suffered a potentially serious shoulder injury.

It is the Lions' first drawn series since 1955, and nobody seemed to know what to make of it.

When they return home, Warren Gatland's men may come to appreciate what they've achieved; few gave them any hope of securing a result in this most difficult place to tour.

Gatland may reflect that he got his first Test selection wrong, leaving Maro Itoje and Johnny Sexton out. That duo were to the forefront of everything the tourists did well yesterday, along with Warburton - who was short on game-time for the initial encounter but who roared back in games two and three.

Still, drawing here is a feat that will look better with passing time. This was the first time the All Blacks had failed to win at Eden Park since 1994; last week's win was the first time they had lost at home since 2009.

Following on from Ireland's success in Chicago, the Lions have helped make the world champions look human. It wasn't the result the Lions wanted, but in the long term it could work out in the Northern Hemisphere teams' favour.

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