Honours even between the British & Irish Lions and the world champion All Blacks, most supporters from the northern hemisphere would have settled for that five weeks after a poor performance against the Provincial Barbarians and defeat to the Blues. That had brought out the worst of Kiwi crowing that this would be another clean sweep for New Zealand on a tour that would be as disastrous as the 2005 whitewash, while the media here rounded on Gatland in a way he felt crossed the line.
Three weeks into the tour, his wife Trudi asked him how he was enjoying this tour back to his homeland. That was even before the caricature of her husband as a clown was splattered across the New Zealand Herald newspaper.
“I said ‘I’m hating it’,” was the reply.
“You don’t publicly show that something’s affecting you but I don’t mind people criticising me tactically or the way that we play but I thought some of the stuff was quite personal and, as a Kiwi, I found that quite challenging to be perfectly honest.
“You’ve got to put that aside and move on. I’m not a person who trawls through every newspaper and media and stuff but you hear what’s going on and you get briefed from your media people and family are telling you what’s going on and what people are saying.
“You try really hard to make sure that doesn’t affect you or you don’t see the staff and the players, you know, you’ve got to make sure you’re relaxed and calm, that’s important they see you as the person in charge and in control of whatever’s going on out there.”
On Saturday in Auckland, with the Lions having become the first visiting side to beat New Zealand since 2008 in the second Test, Gatland’s team managed the draw that made them the first team not to lose to the All Blacks at Eden Park since 1994. It had been as hard-fought as the previous two Tests and the home side had thrown everything they could at the Lions in a hectic opening quarter, scoring tries through rookies Ngani Laumape, the centre, and full back Jordie Barrett, each of whom was making his first Test start. However, they would come to rue also wasting several opportunities, possessing only a 12-6 lead at the break.
Elliot Daly’s penalty from inside his own half and a penalty from Owen Farrell over the halfway line dragged the Lions level as the game reached the hour mark to set up a nervy closing 20 minutes, first Beauden Barrett edging the All Blacks in front before Farrell stepped up to nervelessly slot the equalising points with two minutes left.”
Unfortunately it was a refereeing call that probably decided the outcome of the series, Romain Poite downgrading an All Blacks penalty to a scrum straight after the restart as he overturned his initial instinct that replacement hooker Ken Owens deliberately played the ball in an offside position from a debatable aerial knock-on by Liam Williams and instead judged it accidental. No glory strike from the tee for Beauden Barrett but a nail-biting scrum the Lions defended brilliantly, Rhys Webb stealing the loose ball as it squeaked free from the turning All Blacks pack.
“He got caught up in over-thinking it,” Steve Hansen said of Poite. “I bet he is not feeling good about that. He is a good man, Romain.
“You just have to accept it, as much as it can be frustrating and annoying, it is part of sport. In five years’ time do you think anyone will remember when they think about this series it was drawn on something like that? No, they will just say it was a drawn series and we will have all moved on.”
The tourists had survived and achieved an outcome few had thought possible, despite only leading the world champions for three minutes in the entire series, when Farrell’s late penalty delivered the second Test win in Wellington.
Sharing the spoils was, considering the might of the opposition, a satisfactory outcome for Gatland.
“You’ve got to reflect on that and say it’s a pretty good achievement in terms of coming to New Zealand and playing the best team in the world in their own backyard and we’ve drawn the series, particularly after losing the first Test. We always said that winning the first Test was important to give us a chance of winning the series but having won the second Test and drawing the third is a great achievement.”
J Barrett; I Dagg, A Lienert-Brown, N Laumape (M Fekitoa, 66), J Savea (A Cruden, 73); B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara, 74); J Moody (W Crockett, 57), C Taylor (N Harris, 73), O Franks (C Faumuina, 57); B Retallick, S Whitelock (S Barrett, 78); J Kaino, S Cane (A Savea, 59), K Read – captain.
J Kaino 49-59 mins
L Williams; A Watson (J Nowell, 73), J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton (B Te’o, 48-53 and 73), C Murray (R Webb, 68); M Vunipola (J McGrath, 59), J George (K Owens, 69), T Furlong (K Sinckler, 59); M Itoje, AW Jones (C Lawes, ); S Warburton – captain (AW Jones, 66-75), S O’Brien (CJ Stander, h-t), T Faletau.
Romain Poite (Fra)