Rumours of the Lions' demise have been greatly exaggerated. What unfolded in Wellington on Saturday was one of the great British and Irish Lions victories of all time, and in a 24-21 victory that was littered with ill-discipline, red and yellow cards and two tries for the tourists, the series will head back to Auckland for an almighty deciding showdown.
Sonny Bill Williams will be remembered as the villain; his first-half red card leaving his side in huge trouble, and yet the Lions still nearly found a way to lose the second Test at the Westpac Stadium.
But two second half tries from Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray were enough to nullify the 21 points from All Blacks’ fly-half Beauden Barrett, and like he has done so many times before for Saracens and England, Owen Farrell struck the winning penalty two minutes from time to keep the series alive.
Steve Hansen said in midweek he has never worked with a player who has intentionally tried to hurt an opponent. He can no longer say so. A moment of stupidity from Williams left his side in the lurch for 55 minutes of a brutally tough contest, yet you have to credit referee Jerome Garces. The Frenchman immediately judged Williams’ shoulder charge to the head of Anthony Watson to be a red card offence.
Television match official George Ayoub appeared to try and talk him out of it, but Garces stuck to his guns and sent the World Cup winner back to the changing room.
Much of the pre-match build-up also centred around the weather, and windy Wellington did not disappoint. The heavens opened an hour before kick-off and made the opening 20 minutes a nightmare for both teams, with errors all over the pitch leading to numerous scrums and stoppages.
With Hansen choosing to reinforce his midfield, Jerome Kaino paid the price for Williams’ ill-discipline and Ngani Laumape entered the fray for his Test debut. As the rain eased, Barrett and Farrell began to trade blows through the boot, and as each time the former nudged the All Blacks ahead, the latter responded immediately.
But Barrett wasn’t having a solid day from the tee – far from it. He spurned three chances at goal that would have clinched the match and, in turn, the series, but the Hurricanes fly-half experienced a return of the jitters that has blighted his Super Rugby season.
With the scores level at 9-9 at half-time, Warren Gatland will have been confident his side could push on and take full advantage of the extra man.
Instead, they nearly threw it all away in 15 brainless minutes.
Gatland has been adamant that the Lions must keep their penalty countdown to single figures if they were to have any chance, but ill-discipline again engulfed them after the break and they quickly found themselves 18-9 down, with Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola the main culprits.
Their ill-discipline was encapsulated by three minutes that Vunipola will be keen to forget.
After a late tackle on Barrett, the prop then launched himself into the fly-half fewer than 180 seconds later when the All Black lay prone at the bottom of the ruck. Garces reviewed the clash, and sent the loosehead to the sin-bin.
The game was slipping away, and yet the Lions finally clicked into gear. Exactly halfway through the second half, the Lions launched a move that took them deep into the All Blacks’ 22. They fired quick ball out left from Murray, and a lovely miss-pass from Farrell put Liam Williams into space. Rather than go himself though, the full-back unselfishly passed to Faletau, and the Welsh No 8 backed himself to take on Israel Dagg and score in the corner.
Farrell shanked the conversion, but the Lions were back in touch and although Barrett stretched the lead again when replacement prop Kyle Sinckler was offside, the tighthead would have his moment later on.
Eight minutes after the try, the hooker, Jamie George, made a lung-busting break into the All Blacks 22. The support was immediate, and that allowed Murray to go quickly down the blindside, dummy his way past TJ Perenara and have enough pace to make it over the line. Farrell landed the conversion to level the scores with just 10 minutes on the clock.
The Lions rallied once again, and Sinckler’s impact would be felt when the prop jumped to catch the ball from a high pass. His opposite number, Charlie Faumuina, tackled the Harlequin, and despite the fact that Sinckler jumped into the tackle – and proceeded to erupt in anger at the hit – Garces awarded the penalty in the Lions favour.
Farrell kicked the points from in front of the posts, and what followed were celebrations that will live long in the memory of the thousands in red that lit up the Cake Tin.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg; Waisake Naholo (Aaron Cruden, 59), Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith (TJ Perenara, 66); Joe Moody (Wyatt Crckett, 53), Codie Taylor (Nathan Harris, 80), Owen Franks (Charlie Faumuina, 53); Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock (Scott Barrett, 73); Jerome Kaino (Ngani Laumape, 26), Sam Cane (Ardie Savea, 64), Kieran Read.
British and Irish Lions: Liam Williams, Anthony Watson (HIA jack Nowell, 25-31), Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola (jack McGrath, 64), Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong (Kyle Sinckler, 62); Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones (Courtney Lawes, 59); Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements not used: Ken Owens, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Ben Te’o.
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