New Zealand 21 British & Irish Lions 24
Warren Gatland and Steve Hansen went their separate ways on Saturday, the rival coaches’ promised chat over a friendly beer or two put on hold for just a little while longer.
No one, bar 4.5m New Zealanders, will argue too much with that.
Judging by the less than scientifically-gleaned reaction of Kiwis in Wellington and Queenstown in the 24 hours since the British & Irish Lions levelled this Test series with a dramatic victory at Westpac Stadium on Saturday, there may well be a healthy proportion of those who are genuinely pleased the tourists have got their act together and are giving their beloved All Blacks a contest.
The bottle opener will instead be brandished in Auckland, at Eden Park, next Saturday when this ding-dong battle reaches its conclusion and to whomever the congratulations are delivered, one imagines there will be a generous dollop of respect offered by the losing party after two compelling meetings over the past two weekends.
In the meantime, the two New Zealanders will have some serious thinking to do ahead of the mouth-watering decider following a second Test that saw the Lions struggle to overcome an All Blacks side depleted by the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams in the 26th minute and only go in front three minutes from the end when Owen Farrell kicked the penalty that would secure the win.
So while Gatland was taking his Lions to Queenstown, a lakeside resort in the Southern Alps for a couple of days’ downtime after nine games in 28 days, Hansen was preparing for an immediate retreat to Auckland while pondering only the fifth defeat in his 70 Tests in charge of the best team in the world.
The records had tumbled in the Wellington rain on Saturday as the All Blacks lost at home for the first time since 2009, when South Africa beat them in Hamilton, and were kept tryless on New Zealand soil for the first time in 15 years.
Always one to speak with clarity and more logic than the quality of questioning sometimes deserves, Hansen yesterday told of his side’s attitude problems, mentioned elsewhere on these pages, when going down in Chicago last November as a world record run of 18 successive Test victories was brought to a shuddering halt by Ireland.
Saturday night’s defeat, by contrast, had been equally deserved but it was more a question of circumstance following the red card issued to Williams for a no-arms shoulder charge into Anthony Watson’s face. Either way, Hansen prefers to take life lessons from his infrequent experiences of defeat.
His side had forged an 18-9 second-half lead despite their numerical disadvantage as the Lions were doing their best to lose the contest through frequent indiscipline, underscored by a yellow card for loosehead prop Mako Vunipola for a late hit on Beauden Barrett that reduced the game to 14-a-side.
Yet while the world champions had kept the scoreboard ticking over, regardless of Barrett’s three missed penalties, the Lions had scored tries, through Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray, and New Zealand had failed to get back into the contest at its endgame due to, in Hansen’s view, poor game management. “It’s not a history lesson, it’s just life. It’s about what we call the inconvenient fact,” he said.
“Sometimes we brush over the cracks that are there. When you lose, the cracks get exposed because that is why you have lost. The crack that got exposed last night was that we didn’t know how to take that space that was downfield towards the end. How do we learn from that and go there?”
Gatland was similarly disgruntled about the way forward.
“There were a lot of things I wasn’t happy about,”said the Lions head coach. “I wasn’t happy about some of the penalties (eight in the second half) and the discipline. I am happy we got ourselves out of a hole and showed some real character and courage, I am happy with our physicality. We’ve got to make sure we don’t give away stupid and soft penalties — key players were guilty of that. That needs to improve. Our kicking game needs to be more accurate.”
And yet, Gatland should be far the happier of the two this week, not least because of his current surroundings by the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Aside from that third-quarter wobble, it was his Lions who played the more positive rugby, a stark reversal of perceptions in which the All Blacks are supposed to be the ones playing champagne rugby while the tourists bash it up the middle in an attempt to bludgeon their way to victory, Warrenball-style.
Both second-half tries, finished by Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray after some precision approach play engineered by the playmaker pairing of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, were well-executed examples of flair over prescription and not lacking in physical intensity a week after the Lions had been schooled at the breakdown and on the gainline.
The point has not been lost on Gatland, who could not resist a gentle prod of a now wounded bear a week after calling out his own players for lacking the requisite intensity. “The ironic thing is this is the best team in the world and, for two Test matches, they really haven’t stressed us.
“They have squeezed us, made us give away penalties and that has been to our downfall, but we haven’t seen the expansive rugby that the ABs are known for and creating havoc. We’ve coped with that and if we can continue to cope with that and improve in other areas, then we are going to see, hopefully, a great Test match.
“Yes, we have poked the bear, but hopefully the wounded Lion from last week is still recovering as well.”
It all makes for a fascinating build-up to the third and final Test, leaving little chance to savour a first Lions win on New Zealand soil for 24 years.
Victory in Wellington, said Gatland, was “pretty massive”.
“It was kind of all or over today. I think, for all of us, for everything, for the future of the Lions, for the team, for people involved, to go 1-1 with no one expecting that, to show the character and go to Eden Park thinking, ‘Actually, if we put our best foot forward and play to our ability, we are capable of winning that Test match and the series’.”
The Lions coach will not be the only one drinking to that if it all comes together one last time on Saturday.
I Dagg; W Naholo (A Cruden, 59), A Lienert-Brown, SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara, 66); J Moody (W Crockett, 52), C Taylor (N Harris, 80), O Franks (C Faumuina, 52); B Retallick, S Whitelock (S Barrett, 73); J Kaino (N Laumape, 26), S Cane (A Savea, 63), K Read – captain.
SB Williams, 26
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS:
L Williams; A Watson (J Nowell, 26-31), J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola (J McGrath, 65), J George, T Furlong (K Sinckler, 61); A W Jones (C Lawes, 58), M Itoje; S Warburton – captain, S O’Brien (J McGrath, 63-65), T Faletau.
M Vunipola, 55-65 Replacements not used: K Owens, CJ Stander, R Webb, B Te’o.
Jerome Garces (France).
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