The Lions earn respect in the toughest rugby environment of all
Warren Gatland and his squad were written off before the three-Test Series but through sheer force of will they earnt the respect of the All Blacks
When time allows for clarity of thought; after an evening of maddening, frenetic, passionate intensity, there will be no doubting who is the happier of the two coaches; Warren Gatland.
Written off by fans and rugby sages the world over before the Series, Gatland could afford to play the joker after a drawn Series, in which the Lions had only led for three minutes of the 240-minute slugfest, wandering in to the post-match press conference with a clown’s red nose as a two-fingered salute to the members of the New Zealand media who had pilloried him as a clown just weeks ago, when the Lions struggled to break into a canter, let alone a gallop.
And yet. The Lions simply refused to be beaten.
In sport we talk of honing skills as a child, the ‘top two-inches’ as we hit adolescence, and scientifically-designed conditioning as we hit professionalism but what the Lions achieved came through something less tangible, less measurable on a GPS chart, it was what they found within; heart, resolve and an unbreakable spirit.
For a second, we should remind ourselves of the quality of the opposition. The All Blacks had won 46 consecutive home games before Wellington. The Lions for their part had not won a Series against New Zealand for 46 years. It is against these irrefutable facts that any conclusion to a drawn Series must be judged.
From the second minute when captain Sam Warburton dived on the pill, like a ferret down a hole, and was harshly penalized for it, you sensed it would come to embody a Lions performance, however imperfect, that will be talked about in hushed, reverential tones in the years to come.
Maro Itoje, too, left us in no doubt that he’d chomped his three Shredded Wheat that morning. He snaffled All Black attackers, stole lineouts, intercepted passes in heavy traffic and bounced Kiwi defenders like skittles in an alley. With six minutes on the clock, he was dragged up off the turf exhausted, and winning a key turnover. Even ‘Super Maro’ seemed human for a moment.
It was breathless, brutal and not for the feint-hearted. No collision was more wince-inducing than Jerome Kaino’s ferocious late shoulder charge on Alun Wyn Jones that sent his head richochetting backwards, in the manner of a boxer falling towards the canvas, earning the All Black a yellow card, but there was also magic to behold.
The All Blacks had fielded two rookies, Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape, the two try scorers. Many openly questioned if they would buckle under the enormous pressure, but when Beauden Barrett drilled a perfectly weighted cross-kick through the Auckland air to young Jordie – something they’d probably practiced on countless occasions on the family farm, under the watchful gaze of Mount Taranaki – the 6ft 5in full-back, lifted himself above Elliot Daly, and in the manner of a basketball player, swatted the ball downwards onto to turf only for the ball to bounce up to an onrushing Laumape who clasped the ball mid-flow and powered over. It was a hammer blow to the Lions. Only 90 seconds earlier, they had been shellacking the All Blacks try-line, before a mis-placed Owen Farrell pass had been picked out by the one man you didn’t want in open space, the rapier-fast Beauden Barrett, who had given Laumape a clear run to the line before Jonathan Davies hunted him down. Advantage New Zealand.
The Lions kept in touch, with Farrell slotting any penalty chances that came his way.
It was again time for the All Blacks to show the innovation and impudence for which they are renowned and again the two rookies were heavily involved. When Brodie Retallick picked the ball off the top of the lineout, he drove towards the Lions 22 and the ball was recycled from Beauden Barrett to Laumape who offloaded deliciously with one-hand to Anton Lienert-Brown who in turn fed Jordie Barrett to arc around a scrambling Anthony Watson to score.
Barrett Snr missed the conversion – how he may privately rue his errant boot in the years to come. It was 12-3 and the Lions were struggling to breathe, with the All Blacks blowing chances to extend their lead through poor handling and forward passes from Julian Savea and Lienert-Brown.
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A minute after half-time the Lions won a penalty just inside their half and Elliot Daly, drawing his driver from the bag, and sent the ball through the uprights. 12-9, and they were still in touch.
As the clock wound down, both sides made mistakes, Williams spilt a wicked bounce from an Aaron Smith kick, Jamie George threw an errant dart, as Barrett and Farrell, like two marksmen, waited for the kill.
Still the sides, prodded and probed defensive lines. Davies, who has since been named Players’ Player of the Series, drove Barrett Jnr metres backwards and minutes later rushed out of defence to clatter the young Hurricane, as the Lions attempted to neuter the All Blacks’ dangerous debutant.
When Barrett clipped over an easy penalty to draw the All Blacks, three points ahead with six minutes left on the clock, fingernails were gnawed among the red-clad supporters, who had spent much of their life-savings and travelled over 11,000 miles for the improbable, ‘I was there’ moment.
Intervention, even of the divine sort, was needed, and it duly arrived as they won a penalty to clear the lines and claw into the All Blacks half and within a minute when Itoje was impede on the deck, Farrell was given the chance to level the scores.
For the Saracen, who had not enjoyed his most error-free of evenings, it was time to trust his technique, and at the top of his kicking range, send the ball inches over the crossbar to widespread pandemonium from the crowd, with two minutes 40 seconds left. 15-15.
There was still time for one last twist. From the resulting kick-off, Williams and Ken Owens, jumped skywards to secure the ball with Kieran Read – who else? – putting pressure. The ball was spilt forward and appeared to hit Owens in an offside position. Romaine Poite signalled a penalty but Warburton, showing speed of thought, questioned the decision, saying it was accidental. After conferring with the TMO, George Ayoub, Poite downgraded it to award the All Blacks a scrum. With seconds left on the clock, CJ Stander and Williams clattered an All Black into touch five metres out and an exhausted Poite, blew for full-time.
While it was the result nobody wanted – the last time a Lions Series was drawn was in 1955 against South Africa – as the players looked around, unsure whether to laugh, or cry, trying to pick out family members in the crowd, they traipsed around the Eden Park pitch, awaiting the rapidly assembled, shared trophy presentation, a ‘loser’ was hard to spot on both sides after a trio of Tests that had captured the imagination of rugby fans, from all over the world, let alone the nations involved.
Indeed, to witness the camaraderie and respect between the two warring teams at the final whistle, was to showcase every value that makes rugby so special. Honours shared, the Lions’ very concept vindicated.
The countdown for South Africa starts now.