After a hectic five weeks on the road and eight searching examinations to this point, the 2017 Lions tour reached the point of no return in the aptly named windy Wellington last Saturday night.
To keep this tour alive and relevant for the last week of action, Warren Gatland’s men had to find a performance of substance to halt the all-powerful, all-consuming All Black machine.
Gatland was always a good man for a flutter and in a win or bust scenario finally opted for the much touted double playmaking option of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, despite discounting it as a viable option for most of the tour.
Despite that tactical alteration which resulted in the straight running, big tackling Ben Te’o being relegated to bench action, the most hotly debated topic in advance of this potential series decider was not the flip in Gatland’s selection policy but the impact of the adverse weather conditions.
With the winds gusting and the rain sweeping in from the Cook Strait, up Fitzroy Bay and into Wellington harbour all day, Gatland was banking on the Lions kicking game to pin New Zealand in their own half of the field.
In conditions that would likely deny New Zealand the facility to showcase their superior handling and off-loading skills, the gap that separated the sides at Eden Park could be narrowed sufficiently to offer the tourists a lifeline.
That was the thinking in advance of kick off but all reasoned, pre-game, analysis went out the window as early as the 25th minute when referee Jerome Garces made the correct call to issue a red card to Sonny Bill Williams for a clear, no arms tackle on Anthony Watson.
Once the television evidence confirmed clear contact of the leading shoulder to the head of the England winger, Garces was left with no option but to dismiss the New Zealander.
Thus Williams, who is not as popular a figure in New Zealand as you would expect, became only the third ever All Black to see red, the last being Colin Meads 50 years ago, and the first to do so on New Zealand soil.
We have seen incidents in the past, as recently as last November in Dublin, when New Zealand overstep the mark in the physical stakes.
On that occasion Malakai Fekitoa landed an equally dangerous head shot on Simon Zebo but referee Jaco Peyper failed to carry out his duty. The citing commission subsequently confirmed that Fekitoa’s tackle was a sending off offence.
With little assistance from his fellow officials Garces, to his credit, was not found wanting and a game that appeared at that stage to be destined for a penalty shootout, swung in favour of the Lions, an advantage they struggled to grasp for long periods.
The fact that New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was immediately forced to withdraw Jerome Kaino, one of his key ball carriers in the back row, introducing debutant Ngani Laumape to fill the hole in midfield, immediately handed the initiative to the Lions.
In the modern game, teams prepare for the likelihood of having to perform with a numerical disadvantage given the frequency with which yellow cards are dispatched. It is therefore not an alien concept to play with a man down.
In fact only last June we witnessed Ireland somehow overcoming a similar situation in Cape Town when CJ Stander was dismissed after 23 minutes of Ireland’s opening test against South Africa but hung on in to win.
Still, in a contest as competitive as this and in conditions that made it impossible to develop any semblance of continuity, the Lions had been offered a series changing opportunity. The big question now was were they good enough to take advantage of it.
The one thing we know about New Zealand is that they are a champion side with a strong mental edge and in circumstances as challenging as this, you were guaranteed that they would roll up their sleeves and work even harder.
What wasn’t anticipated however was the fact that, due to some appalling indiscipline immediately following the half-time break when coughing up five penalties in a row, the Lions would completely shoot themselves in the foot.
On another day they would have been kicked out of the contest for those indiscretions but, when he was needed most, the reigning World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett missed three kickable penalties at vital times.
Quite what was going through the head of Mako Vunipola when conceding two ridiculous penalties within a few minutes of each other, the first of which warranted a yellow card, the second which did. On any other day those indiscretions would have cost the Lions the game and the series.
The conditions were such that this game never approached anything like the brilliant spectacle witnessed the previous week. Despite the sending off of Williams and Barrett’s inconsistency with the boot, it looked for long periods of that second half as if the Lions were going to blow their shot at history. Then, as if stung into action by Vunipola’s stupidity and aided by a break in the weather, the Lions backed themselves and put width on their game. All of a sudden the Sexton/Farrell axis sprung into life with Sexton’s trademark loops creating holes in the New Zealand defence that left them scrambling.
Two tries in a magical ten-minute period of attacking bliss not only served to rescue the series but, potentially, the very existence of the Lions concept. Had they lost this game, given the sending off of Williams and the profligacy of Barrett from the boot, the ridicule and vitriol that would have attached would have been damaging.
Instead we now have a series decider to look forward to, back in Eden Park next Saturday night. All of a sudden the pressure is on New Zealand. After weeks on the receiving end, Gatland and his squad are perfectly positioned to create a shock.
Lions tours have always been compromised by injury at the tail end of an ever demanding season yet, incredibly, it is the All Blacks with a growing casualty list in sick bay. Their back line in particular has been ravaged.
Shorn of Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty after the first test, they are certain to lose Sonny Bill for next weekend’s decider as he is sure to cop a further sanction following his dismissal. In addition Waisaki Noholo failed his head injury assessment and must also be a doubt for the decider.
By comparison, surprisingly, the Lions are in pretty rude health. Of even more importance, they are fighting for each other and have found a spirited cohesion that clawed back a nine-point deficit at a time when this New Zealand squad usually pull away from all opposition in the final quarter.
The Lions key back-line leaders in Conor Murray, Sexton and Farrell upped the ante, manufactured two superb tries and stopped New Zealand scoring any. That doesn’t happen too often.
Despite his kicking woes, Barrett still posed a monumental threat every time he got his hands on the ball. Quite why New Zealand persist in shifting him to full-back every time they cop an injury in the back three is bizarre. He is a genius with ball in hand and would create far more problems than Aaron Cruden if left in the pivotal role.
New Zealand will respond to this setback, of that we can be certain. There will be a Blacklash but the Lions too have discovered that they can play. After a brief truce leading into the second test, the war of words is sure to crank up again. Next weekend’s face off in Auckland will be captivating.
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