Well, what a breath taking finale after what was an incredible match in so many ways.
It took an amazing response from the Lions in the final quarter with two excellent tries, after a very very poor third quarter when it looked like the match had got away from them, to seal victory and take the series to a ‘winner takes all’ decider back at Eden Park next Saturday. What a tumultuous occasion that will be, which will be simply unmissable.
Credit must be given to Gatland for making the big calls with his bold selections and he got it just about right, despite the contrary views of so many of the rugby pundits in the days leading up to the match. The proof was all to see and the combination of Sexton and Farrell proved the right call, with both making significant contributions.
The shape of the match was very much determined by the atrocious wet conditions and then the correct sending off of Sonny Bill Williams after 20 minutes for a reckless challenge. The match was very much there for the taking for the Lions, but beating a team with 14 men is far easier said than done. After all the opposition was the All Blacks, the best team in the world, and they were certainly not going to feel sorry for themselves or roll over. And they most certainly did not.
The Lions needed to be patient and take their time but their huge penalty and error count, allied to the determination and spirit of the All Blacks, meant that with 20 minutes to go the All Blacks led by 9 points and it did feel as though the match was slipping away from the Lions. However, the big players stood up, the winners, the likes of Sexton, Farrell, Faletau, Warburton and O’Brien, they didn’t panic and once some they had at last gained some territory and field position they were able to play. With the ball in hand, the Lions suddenly looked a different proposition. Sexton and Farrell were both able to step in as playmakers and bring into play the back three, all of whom looked dangerous and elusive. Suddenly there was quick ball and recycling, gaps began to appear which led to excellent tries finished off by the omnipresent Faletau and Murray. The momentum had shifted hugely and it looked like the Lions were the only team that were going to win. As an attacking force, the Lions looked dangerous and, when going through the phases in the All Black half, there was always a chance that they might be able to force a penalty which they duly did, which the ice cool Farrell slotted to ensure an historic victory.
This was ultimately a reward for a performance based on heart, passion and togetherness, which the Lions are showing in bundles. They were far from great, indeed at times very poor, but that desire to win shone through and whilst they were obviously elated at the win, the players all emphasised after the match that the job is only half done. The players have their sights very firmly fixed on the bigger prize, the series victory and if they can take the momentum of this win with them to Auckland next week then they stand a good chance. However, the All Blacks will feel wounded and will come back even stronger. It makes for a fascinating week’s build up and next Saturday’s series decider can’t come soon enough for the watching rugby world.
The Lions, as expected, started out in a very physical manner, as demanded by Gatland. They were strong in the tackle and ferocious at the breakdown, and even though they benefitted from Sonny Bill Williams’ sending off, they made far too many errors with ball in hand, so conceding territory. At half time the message would have been to cut out such mistakes and play the match in the New Zealand half.
However, they were not able to and indeed, it was quite the reverse. The All Blacks made a very good start to the second half, with some very direct and hard running through the 10-12 channel. The Lions quite simply had an awful 20 minutes, conceding 5 penalties, culminating in the sin-binning of Mako Vunipola for a reckless late tackle off the ball and, through winning so many kickable penalties, the All Blacks stretched away to lead by 9 points.
It was at this stage the Lions needed to stay calm and for the leaders to step up, which they most certainly did. The gain line defence remained strong, they continued to put in the big hits and, with some clean ball, the outside backs were able to impose themselves on the match and make a difference. Soft hands from Daly and Williams sent Watson away down the right, and when the ball was recycled to the left , Williams popped up again and sent Faletau diving and stretching away into the corner to score a magnificent try.
Uplifted the Lions came again, all the forwards carrying with gusto and purpose, then Jamie George appeared on Sexton’s shoulder to ease his way through a hole in the All Black defence and when the ball was quickly recycled, Conor Murray had the presence of mind to spot a gap on the short side and force his way over. Farrell nailed the conversion under huge pressure to level the scores before kicking the winning penalty a few minutes later.
It wasn’t a vintage performance but for beating the All Blacks in their own back yard, even though they only had 14 men for the majority of the match, the Lions deserve huge credit. After all, the All Blacks have not lost at home since 2009 and so this was some achievement. The Lions management and players can feel rightly proud.
Marks out of 10
Williams 8 A fine match. Put in some excellent kick chases. Defensively he was under much pressure from NZ high kicks, especially in the first half, and whilst he dropped a couple they were not significant as they were very difficult takes in the atrocious conditions. From an attacking perspective, he was very dangerous. Put in a brilliant try scoring pass for Faletau’s try and was very good on the ball throughout.
Watson 7 Dancing feet albeit he does have the tendency to get isolated on occasions. Was good under the high ball. Made good ground prior to Faletau try and always looked dangerous when he had the ball in hand.
Davies 7 Another good match. He is a deceptively smooth runner and made a good break in first half. Strong in the tackle and always shows good game awareness.
Farrell 7 Showed that his selection was the correct one as he distributed well from the number 12 position and was able to offer a good alternative to Sexton as first receiver when required. Back to something like his best with his goal kicking under pressure to see out the match.
Daly 7 Lively, looking for action and showed up well all match. Had little space to work in but did all that was asked of him and provided an excellent offload in the build up to the Faletau try.
Sexton 7 Another who had a good match, with variety in his play and linking well with Farrell. A couple of poor kicks in the first half, one which went dead but far more accurate as the match went on. Never shirked his defensive responsibilities.
Murray 8 A curate’s egg of a performance. A mixed first half with one kick going straight out and he gave away a penalty for not rolling away. Then he he gave away another penalty for a high tackle. However, all that will be forgotten for his brilliant finish for his try with just a few minutes to go when he seized on a crucial break by George which had caused confusion in the All Black ranks and he picked up and darted over with several All Blacks clinging onto his coat tails but not being able to prevent him from scoring. It was an ‘on your feet’ moment for Lions watching all round the world and a try that will surely go down in Lions’ folklore and which he will be able to dine out on forever.
Mako 4 Was under pressure in the scrum in the early encounters and conceded a penalty but when the All blacks were down to 14, the Lions gained ascendancy at scrum time. He gave away another penalty for not rolling away and then in the second half he conceded another for a late tackle for which he was lucky not to be yellow carded. Then, five minutes later he was rightly yellow carded for yet another careless challenge at the breakdown. Ultimately he was saved by his teammates’ response in the final twenty minutes but his errors could quite easily have been costly. He let himself down badly and just appeared a bit too hot headed. Will be very lucky to start in the final test.
George 7 Another good match. A couple of line out throwing errors but prominent around the pitch, putting in the tackles and made an excellent break in the lead up to Murray’s match winning try.
Furlong 7 Showed good strength making ground on a few occasions and strong in the tackle.
Itoje 8 Came through well and seemed to get stronger as the match went on. He dropped an early ball but carried well thereafter. He is another who is liable to give away too many penalties but he exercised good control on the whole and showed lots of physicality in the loose and at the breakdown.
AW Jones 6 Performed as expected, always wholehearted and committed but not as dynamic as those fighting for the second row position. Was replaced as expected before the hour mark for the more aggressive Courtney Lawes.
Warburton 8 A captain’s stint, leading the way in all respects. He demanded a performance from his charges, which he got, and he played a significant role.
O’Brien 8 Another good performance. Showed good strength and made good ground with the ball in hand throughout the match. Very strong defensively too and wholly committed.
Faletau 8 An excellent match in all respects, culminating in a brilliant finish for his try which brought the Lions back into the match.
McGrath 6 Only on for a short while so had little opportunity to show
Sinckler 7 Always makes a difference with his carrying with ball in hand and in the tackle area. Very strong, has good hands and is an excellent man to bring on towards the end of the match with the opposition tiring
Lawes 7 Good strength with ball in hand. Another good man to bring on to add physicality in both attack and defence.
CJ Stander unused
Nowell 7 5 minutes of action when he came on for Watson’s HIA. Looked lively and sent a good clearing kick into space which resulted in good ground gained for the Lions.