A fittingly tense third test had a result that no-one wanted, but will live long in the memory
A fraught, nervous and confusing finale to the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand ended with the one result few had considered and none had dreamt of, a draw in the match and the series. Both sides clearly felt the pressure, making mistakes at key moments, and behaving like players who were all too aware of what was at stake: for the Lions, a once-in-a-lifetime shot at history; for the All Blacks, the only thing missing from their CVs, combined with the pressure to avoid the ignominy of becoming only the second New Zealand team in history to lose to the Lions.
It showed in the knock ons and missed line out throws that plagued the tourists, and in the uncharacteristic handling errors and missed kicks made by New Zealand.
For the home side, Julian Savea, such a prolific try-scorer, restored to the starting XV after a series on the sidelines, dropped what looked like a certain scoring pass in the first half, that would have given the All Blacks a two-score half time lead, while Beauden Barrett, electrifying and dangerous in attack, missed two more kicks after missing three last week, again keeping the Lions in the game and joined Savea and Ngani Laumape by dropping the ball when a score looked likely.
For the Lions, the weight of the occasion was exemplified by the usually unflappable Owen Farrell, who made an ill-judged long pass that ruined his team’s best attacking opportunity, resulting in an interception and almost a New Zealand score, made a reckless challenge that was fortunate not to be penalised, put a kick straight into touch and made a knock on in a key defensive position, all in the space of a few breathless first half minutes.
The Englishman redeemed himself however, with four out of four well-struck penalties, none more impressive than his last, three minutes from full time, from near the halfway line, which snuck over the bar, bringing the Lions level. Winger Elliott Daly earlier having joined him on the scoreboard just after half time with a trademark long range effort.
The game’s only tries came in the first half, both from New Zealand. Full back Jordie Barrett, 20 years old and making his full debut, rose high above Daly to bat down an inch-perfect cross-field kick from old brother Beauden, straight into the path of Laumape, who dived over to score.
The centre returned the favour later in the half, making a powerful run that sucked in Farrell and Jonathan Davies, then producing the slickest of offloads to Anton Lienert-Brown, who put the full back away to score.
Despite being 12-6 down at half time, the Lions stayed in the game through the boots of Farrell and Daly, and perhaps most of all, a superb defensive effort, marshalled by defensive coach Andy Farrell, who leaves New Zealand with his reputation significantly enhanced, an impressive turnaround after being sacked by the RFU in the aftermath of England’s disastrous 2015 world cup campaign.
If fluent rugby was not on display, there was no lack of drama. The Lions had their best chance to put pressure on New Zealand when Jerome Kaino was sin-binned for a high tackle, but only came away with three points.
The most contentious moments came in the game’s later stages. A debatable scrum penalty went against Kyle Sinckler, on at tighthead for the Lions, when it could easily have gone the other way. Barrett’s kick gave New Zealand a 15-12 lead. After Farrell pulled the Lions level, Sinckler redeemed himself, winning a penalty from scrum in a similar position, this time a more clear cut decision for referee Romain Poite.
The moment New Zealanders will debate long into the night came with less than three minutes remaining. The Lions failed to regather a restart cleanly and the ball was instinctively handled by Ken Owens in an offside position. Poite awarded a penalty, echoing a similar decision which cost Scotland their world cup quarter final against Australia at a similar time and in a similar position. The law, designed to prevent players from cynically stopping the opposition playing advantage from a knock on, is a harsh one.
There was a final twist in the tale however. Following discussions with the TMO and his assistants, Poite decided that Owens’ actions were accidental and changed his decision to a scrum, much to Kieran Read’s chagrin. The All Black captain was a picture of class throughout his 100th cap, but was powerless to change Poite’s mind.
The Lions barely held on from the resulting attack, just bundling Jodie Barrett into touch less than five metres from their try line, and after a moment’s confusion, Poite’s final whistle brought the game to a strangely anticlimactic end.
A draw was a fitting result for such a tense and hard-fought series. New Zealand were clearly the better team in attack, but will rue Barrett’s kicking woes and were shut down by a monumental Lions defensive effort. After a gruelling 11-month season and a tough six-week tour, that the tourists were able to keep tackling and stay organised to the last, was a display of the highest character.
Nor were they just defined by kicking and defence, sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not, but they tried to play attacking rugby and stuck doggedly to their plan. Ultimately they never quite overcame their lack of familiarity and cohesion in the crucial moments, and the failure to score a try today will frustrate them, but four good tries in the first two games was no mean feat and a fitting riposte to those who derided their lack of attacking prowess earlier in the tour.
Sam Warburton rebounded from being left out of the first test, making a real impact at the breakdown, tackling and carrying like a man possessed, and deserves to be hailed as one of the great Lions of the modern era. Davies, such a controversial selection four years ago, was perhaps the player of the series, consistent in defence, incisive in attack and playing with real vision – a man in his prime. Tadhg Furlong is now perhaps the best tighthead in the world, following a tour of energetic all-round performances, while Maro Itoje continues to live up to the hype, taking giant leaps every week. Indeed England might have come out of the tour best of all the home nations, thanks to the crop of relatively young players who have had positive experiences of rugby at the highest level: Itoje, Daly, Sinckler and Jamie George among them.
In the past three years, England, Wales and Ireland have all toured New Zealand and lost 3-0. Ireland’s win in Chicago last year showed the All Blacks can be beaten in a one-off, but the Lions have laid a blueprint for stopping them on the big stage. The rest of the world will take note, though whether they can make anything of it, remains to be seen.
New Zealand’s disappointment was palpable, but the whole tour has shown the incredible strength and depth of their game and the legion of world class young talent coming through. They are a side slightly in transition however, with young players at some key positions and those players have had their first reality checks. How they respond now, will determine whether they get back to dominance between now and the next world cup. It would take a remarkable turn of events for them not to go to Japan as favourites in 2019, but there are chinks of light in the armour for the first time since 2011.
Win, lose or draw today, this Lions tour has been a wonderful success, competitive on the field, well-supported off it, a boon to both the hosts and the home nations. Yet the future of the Lions remains in doubt. There were strong hints before the tour that this would be the last in this format, with European clubs not benefitting from seeing their best players flogged for an extra six weeks of rugby during the offseason, there have been rumours that future tours may consist of just six games, effectively eliminating the midweek portion of the tour. That would be a tragedy, in rugby terms, because the Lions are perhaps the last piece of romance in what is now a professional and ruthless business.
With the quality of rugby, the number of travelling fans, the interest from TV and sponsors, the Lions are perhaps the best advert for the game and there must be a way to ensure that everyone benefits, so that they can continue to exist in their full-blooded form in South Africa four years from now.
The third test result, while satisfying neither team, was a fitting end to an engrossing tour and series, a wonderful achievement for the Lions, who have historically lost far more series than they have won. Had this team toured South Africa or Australia this year, they may well have triumphed, given how both those teams are currently struggling.
A draw at least stands out for its uniqueness, only the second drawn series, after 1955 versus South Africa, and the first ever in New Zealand. It will live long in the memory.