The British and Irish Lions pulled off one of the most remarkable wins in their long and illustrious history, beating New Zealand for the first time since 1993 to keep the series alive ahead of next Saturday’s final test.
A 24th minute red card for All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams was the game’s talking point, sent off by referee Jérôme Garcès for a shoulder charge to the head of Anthony Watson, but rather than handing the advantage to the Lions, it was New Zealand who responded better, dominating territory and possession for the next hour.
In fact, it took going down to 14 men as well to bring the Lions back into it, narrowing the score from 18-9 to 18-14 through a try from Taulupe Faletau when his cousin Mako Vunipola was in the sin bin for a reckless clear out on Beauden Barrett, that could have been worse had Garcès decided he led with his shoulder.
Faletau finished his try well, holding off Israel Dagg to score in the corner, profiting from the Lions’ first sustained attacking possession of the half. They had spent the previous 35 minutes crumbling under the weight of their own expectation, knowing that the red card was a golden opportunity to inflict a first home defeat since 2009 on the All Blacks.
While New Zealand efficiently went about the business of keeping possession and building pressure and penalties, the Lions made basic errors, dropping passes, kicking badly, making poor choices, and were only still in the game because Beauden Barrett missed three penalties.
Before the series, the world player of the year’s goalkicking had been identified as one of the few chinks in his armour and he wobbled today, despite succeeding with seven attempts for all of the All Blacks’ 21 points.
Faletau’s try seemed to finally settle Lions nerves, although Owen Farrell’s conversion attempt from the touchline sailed well wide, and despite another penalty from Barrett. The tourists put together another passage of possession, hooker Jamie George picked a superb line through the All Black defence and from the resulting ruck, Conor Murray sniped over the line, Farrell’s conversion bringing scores level at 21-21 with 11 minutes to go.
What had been a match fraught with tension then entered its most nervous phase, with each side playing conservatively and looking for the penalty that would seal it.
When it came, it was a harsh but fair call in favour of the Lions. Replacement New Zealand prop Charlie Faumuina tackled Kyle Sinckler in the air, but the Lions prop was jumping into contact as he received the ball, so while correct, World Rugby should reconsider the law and whether it is fair to reward players who jump into tackles.
However, correct it was and Farrell stepped up to kick the long-range penalty, giving the tourists three minutes to hold on for a rare victory.
Hold on they did, regaining possession and running down the clock before Murray gleefully kicked the ball into touch to end the game.
Strange as it seems after such a famous victory – winning a test match for only the third time in New Zealand since their single series win in 1971, the Lions played poorly for much of the game, far worse than last week when they lost 30-15.
The tourists’ lack of composure was typified by their indiscipline, conceding 13 penalties to New Zealand’s eight. Vunipola’s yellow card came only minutes after he had given away another needless penalty, among four in total, and after a listless performance last week, seems unlikely to keep his spot for the final test; replacement tighthead Sinckler twice had to be restrained by his own teammates from fighting with opponents; and even Maro Itoje, who had an otherwise excellent game, was penalised a couple of times in dangerous positions.
Warren Gatland called for a more physical performance up front and was rewarded with one, which, combined with the presence of returning captain Sam Warburton and a northern hemisphere referee, led to more parity at the breakdown this week.
When they did get possession, the Lions looked far more creative than last week with the axis of Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell, helped by the absence of Williams’ physical threat looming over them.
The Lions will be delighted that they stopped New Zealand from scoring a try, while the hosts will face some selection dilemmas ahead of the third test, with Williams likely to be banned and the goal kicking misfiring. It was would typical of them to trust their players and stick with Barrett at fly-half, but they may be tempted to reshuffle the backline, moving him to full back and bringing in Aaron Cruden at 10.
Had the Lions executed simple skills under pressure after the red card, the result could have been sewn up with plenty of time to spare, but that would have denied us a classic wet weather test match for the ages and the prospect of a grandstand finish to the series next Saturday.