The standard may have not reached the heights of last weekend but this was a classic test match, with healthy dollops of tension, controversy and courage to savour. The British Lions were far from flawless, in fact they probably saved their worst middle 40 minutes all tour through a blizzard of poor discipline and penalties but they found a way to win against a resilient All Blacks side.
Obviously the sending off of star center Sonny Bill Williams for a reckless shoulder charge on Anthony Watson changed the game. It took the Lions a very long time to work it out and it was the All Blacks who fronted up and should have taken the spoils if Beauden Barrett had packed his kicking boots. It just goes to show how difficult the All Blacks are to beat with 14 men let alone with all of their personnel present and correct.
The Lions deserved the win through showing more attacking threat than the All Blacks, which was something we did not expect to say if we were to take ourselves back to the first few matches of the tour. The Lions had to ‘man up’ as per Andy Farrell’s rallying war cry on the eve of the match, and they definitely did that particularly with their intensity in defence. The scrum functioned better and they did not allow the All Black forwards the kind of yards they had during the close quarter battles in Auckland. The inclusion of Maro Itoje and the backing given to under fire Alun Wyn-Jones were two selections that were spot on by Warren Gatland. Itoje makes errors but he has such an engine on him that even the exceptional Brodie Rettalick was waning by the 80th minute. With the deteriorating weather conditions hindering the brilliance of Kieran Read and his men, this was a dogfight that the Lions were looking for.
They nearly cocked it up in all honesty and I dread to think what the headlines would have been for Gatland if New Zealand had kicked their goals and got the series win. The twenty minutes by the Lions after half time were appallingly bad with a succession of stupid penalties gifting a tiring New Zealand team back into the game and deservedly into the lead. It should be noted that it was at about the 60th minute when yours truly made it abundantly clear to everyone around him in the pub that Messrs.’ Rhys Webb and CJ Stander should come on to replace Connor Murray and Toby Faletau. Shows what I know and big kudos to Warren Gatland for trusting in his starting XV to get the job done. Crucially the Lions took their two opportunities with two high quality finishes from Faletau and Murray.
There is much to ponder for both teams as they prepare for the biggest week of their careers. If we start with the Lions, there are still a few selection posers for Gatland to consider. Their discipline is a big concern and the likes of Mako Vunipola will not enjoy the replays during training this week. The reality for the Lions is that they will be up against a ferocious All Black side hell bent on redemption on Saturday and with fifteen men. If the Lions give away the same volume of penalties then there will be only one winner.
I also hope that Toby Faletau can raise his game in Auckland as his brilliant try aside, he still could not make any impression on the All Blacks defence. I think the Lions went well out-wide with both Sexton and Farrell having good games and I like the fact that Rhys Webb, Jack Nowell and Ben Te’o are on the bench should the Lions need a bit of trickery or ballast in Auckland.
For the All Blacks, they could not have done much more in the forwards especially with Jerome Kaino a casualty of Sonny Bill William’s stupidity. What will be a concern for Hansen is that they never looked like scoring despite the hellish weather conditions. The Lions defence were all over them and it maybe that Julian Savea gets his chance in place of a quiet Waisake Naholo to offer some threat to the Lions back three. There may also be a case to put Beauden Barrett at full back to accommodate Aaron Cruden at fly half for his place-kicking, with Israel Dagg shifting to one wing with either Rieko Ioane or Savea on the other.
For the neutral, this is what the world game needed; a winner takes all decider in Auckland. It has all the indicators of being a classic and this is not a match to be missed wherever you are. Unquestionably the All Blacks are the best side on the planet but they are also human and with an expectant public demanding that they get back to business as usual on Saturday. Pressure does funny things to any team and the Lions will have nothing to lose when they head into Auckland. They have now found a way through the All Blacks on home soil and they have the squad to do the job if they play to the best of their ability.
Much depends on the weather and early indications say that it will be dry which will make both teams happy. The Lions attack is getting better and better and we know what the All Blacks can bring with their firepower. It will come down to how well each side adapts to the pressure and who can maintain their discipline. The Lions must stop giving away stupid penalties and if they do that then I genuinely think they can do the unthinkable and take the series. It could come down to the last 20 minutes and Gatland has the finishers he needs to see the game home and create a bit of history in the process. What a match to look forward to and make sure you set your alarms for 8.30am.