Lions 2017: Warren Gatland’s men silence the doubters to set up Auckland decider
In the torrential rain of Wellington the Lions put their supporters through every conceivable emotion, yet emerged victorious to level the Series
Saturday 1st July, 2017. A date that will forever be etched in the Lion’ illustrious 129-year history. It was an evening where records tumbled as fast as the odds for a Lions victory after Sonny Bill Williams thuggishly drove his right shoulder into the face of a defenceless Anthony Watson.
Lest we forget, SBW, a role model all over the world, became the first All Black to be sent off in New Zealand and only the third player in its history – the last being the great Colin Meads in 1967. It was also the first time the All Blacks have failed to score a try in a Test at home since 1998 against South Africa, and don’t forget it was the first victory in the Land of the Long White Cloud for the Lions since 1993. It was that sort of night.
Of course, like any good blockbuster, the Lions made a meal of executing a victory, with New Zealand down to 14-men after 25-minutes, gifting the All Blacks a nine-point cushion with 20 minutes on the ticker.
Despite their heroics, the Lions contrived to flap, fumble and panic their way to the big ‘W’ but they did it through the nerveless Owen Farrell, who guided the ball between the uprights on 75 minutes, after an excitable Kyle Sinckler was upended taking the ball in the air by Charlie Faumuina.
For all the guff about the Lions being an endangered species, it was their loyal, well-fuelled fans who made a marked difference. From the first minute, the famed sea of red, made the Westpac feel like a home game, lustrously welcoming their gladiators onto the slippy turf, in a biblical downpour. They made themselves hoarse, belting out ‘Lions, Lions’ and it reached a crescendo when Maro Itoje scragged Aaron Cruden for a turnover with Alun Wyn Jones, screaming at him in adulation and whacking him on the rump of his backside. The stadium erupted with ‘oh, Maro Itoje’, to the ture of the Seven Nation army, and the Westpac PA helped add to the acoustics with a heavy layer of bass to ramp up the already feverish atmosphere.
After giving away seven consecutive penalties in the second-half as the visitors penalty count sky-rocketed north – hitting the red-zone of double-figures – the supporters still kept the faith, with fingernails gnawed elsewhere.
The tone was set from the off, however.
When Warren Gatland demanded an upping in passion and intensity in the week, his pack offered a bone-crunching riposte. In the second minute, Mako Vunipola and Alun Wyn Jones thundered into an onrushing Owen Franks with such ferocity that pre-match earthquake warnings seemed like they’d need to be heeded.
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Then the rest of the burly band got in on the act. Tadhg Furlong, the farmer’s son from Campile, tore into the men in black, either with the ball or without, showing his piano’s shifter’s strength and pianist’s hands.
As for Maro Itoje, his was a flawed-yet-brilliant performance. He bristled after the game, frustrated with his penalty count and a rare spilt ball early on, but by God, he played with an intensity that even the All Blacks failed to deal with, carrying into heavy traffic like an upright dump truck and throwing himself at black shirts with demonic zeal. When he ran over to his parents at the end of the game, it underlined the boyish-nature of a 22-year-old seeking reassurance from his ‘pops’ and how he deserved it.
The game ebbed and flowed, with Mako Vunipola, who had clearly lost control of his emotions seeing yellow for cleaning out Beauden Barrett twice in a matter of minutes, but as the game entered the last quarter, Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton started to find more space and when a ruck formed on the far side of the pitch, they spotted an opportunity. The ball was fired through hands; from Murray to Sexton, Farrell to Williams, and with a whip of the ball off his right hand, the departing Scarlet found his Welsh team-mate, Taulupe Faletau, 15 metres out. The Bath No 8 has Israel Dagg to beat, and with a step and a feint, he drove his feet into the turf and powered towards a scrambling Dagg, dropping his shoulder, bracing for impact. His technique was textbook, as he straightened his torso and legs to dive over the line to wild celebrations. 21-14. Game on.
The stadium was in raptures, as both sets of players looked for a defining play.
With 67-minutes up, the Lions formed a ruck on the 22, and Conor Murray whipped the ball to Sexton, who popped the ball to Jamie George. The former fly-half scurried 15 metres deep into the All Blacks half. As the ball was recycled, in a nano-second, Conor Murray, surveyed his options at the resulting ruck and darted between the despairing Ardie Savea and TJ Perenara to stretch out an arm to level the scores. If they listened hard enough, you’d swear the cheers could be heard back in Cork.
Even after Farrell’s match-winner, the Lions still had work to do and their thunderclap tackling, notably on Kieran Read, took the breath away, with the tireless Sean O’Brien and Sam Warburton to the fore. With desperation setting in and Reiko Ioane spilling the greasy ball, the Lions were able to rumble back into the black half of the pitch and they whittled down the clock adroitly before Murray hoofed the ball to kickstart giddy, unabated celebrations in the stands.
The reaction from the perpetrators involved were far more muted. The Lions gathered in a huddle, where the message was clear. The job was only half-done. The win meant nothing until the Series was won.
While Warren Gatland could quip that he was ‘one happy clown’, the realization that they’d given the Lions an adrenalin shot of gargantuan proportions was setting in, while the post-mortem was underway from the subdued hosts.
A soul-sapping few days in Queenstown has been averted and the Lions will use their R&R for one last push for immortality to sit alongside the feted 1971 Lions.
Bloody hell, sport, eh!