British & Irish Lions 25 Argentina 25
The Lions escaped with their lives in Cardiff tonight as Jonny Wilkinson booted a penalty eight minutes into injury time that snatched them a draw against Argentina.
The Pumas, shorn of up to a dozen first team regulars and featuring only nine full-time professionals, danced a jig of delight as the Lions trooped off disconsolately after a performance that will have sent few shockwaves through New Zealand.
This was supposed to be the glorious send-off. The game that would propel the best-prepared Lions squad of all time onto great things in New Zealand.
Argentina, though, had not read the script. They exploited an error-strewn opening from the Lions to race 13-0 ahead after just 15 minutes as Jose Nunez Piossek burst over for a try in the corner.
The Pumas then held on as fly-half Federico Todeschini enjoyed a perfect evening with the boot.
Ollie Smith scampered over for the Lions but Todeschini’s 20 point haul had seemed enough to keep the Lions caged before Wilkinson snatched the draw with his seventh successful kick from seven attempts.
The Lions have been together less than a week and in that time Sir Clive Woodward and his band of coaches have been working on laying a basic foundation that the squad can build on, game-by-game, until it is perfected in time for the first Test against New Zealand on June 25.
That, at least, is the plan. Against a weakened Argentina side, the Lions were little short of woeful for much of the game. They looked a rag-tag bunch, getting in each others’ way, unable to hold onto possession and with a defensive pattern full of holes.
There is, indeed, time for those problems to be sorted out but early on the Pumas took maximum advantage, stunning the Millennium Stadium crowd into silence as they ran up a 13-0 lead in just 15 minutes.
Argentina pushed the Lions deep inside their own 22 and when Lewis Moody was penalised for flying into a ruck from the side, Todeschini slotted over his first kick.
The Lions’ retention of possession and carelessness with the ball in hand was desperate and they were sorely punished with just six minutes gone when Felipe Contepomi sliced away on a sharp break, evaded the water-carriers that were still on the field and fed Piossek in space down Shane Williams’ wing for the opening try.
Todeschini converted well but while the score may have briefly roused the home support into life, it did little to inspire the Lions themselves.
Williams briefly dazzled, but lost the ball in contact. Smith cut through onto a Wilkinson pass but was penalised for holding on and Todeschini slotted an excellent penalty.
Two minutes later the Lions showed their first real flash of invention and it earned them a try.
Wilkinson took the ball up to the line and slipped a perfectly timed ball inside to Smith, who burst through and dived over to put the Lions on the board.
Still the Lions lacked conviction. The Pumas continued to pound away, pressing deep into Lions territory and the pressure was only relieved when Michael Owen, the youngest Lions captain since John Spencer in 1971, emerged with ball and broke clear of his own line.
Williams sparked into life as he counter-attacked under a poor Argentina clearance but his deft chip ahead was smothered and ushered into touch.
The Lions were living off scraps and could not turn them into anything remotely wholesome.
The Lions pressed for a second try before half-time and began to find their feet but were stymied by a lack of chemistry and an Argentina defence camped offside.
Either side of another long-range effort from Todeschini, Wilkinson booted two more penalties, both of them for offside and both of them booed by the frustrated home crowd.
The atmosphere under the roof in the Millennium Stadium was flat. The crowd, perhaps spoiled by a season of the most exciting attacking Test rugby as Wales won the Grand Slam, had arrived with high expectations and were not enthused.
Geordan Murphy wasted a promising break down the left with a sloppy pass but the Lions eventually drew level as Wilkinson slotted his fourth penalty.
But not for long. Todeschini booted Argentina ahead with two quick penalties, the second awarded after the Lions had been sent reeling by a 30-metre rolling maul.
Wilkinson, though, was beginning to impose his authority on the game. He looked assured going forward and fired a wonderful bullet pass out to Murphy that almost broke the Argentina defence.
Wilkinson then darted himself and after being felled by a high tackle slotted the penalty that brought the Lions to within three points.
Camped in the Argentina 22 and urged on by Neil Back, acting as a water carrier, the Lions continued to kick penalties to touch in search of the winning try.
Five minutes of injury time appeared from somewhere. The Lions forced a mistake at the scrum-base, won possession but Gordon D’Arcy dropped the ball with a clear run for the line.
Williams then jinked inside but the Argentina defence clung on, forcing the Lions to abandon any hope of victory and Wilkinson slotted the kick that kept their reputation at least partially intact.