Lions level series in thriller

DECLAN MURPHY Roar Guru

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    The British and Irish Lions have levelled the 2017 series, after beating New Zealand in a thriller, 24-21, in the Westpac Stadium, Wellington.

    The game was one full of drama and intrigue. All Black Sonny Bill Williams was red carded early in the match, but the Lions were unable to take full advantage of their one-man overlap.

    Ill-discipline cost the Lions, with Beauden Barrett kicking seven penalties. It would have been more but he had an off day with the boot. Brilliant Lions defence kept the All Blacks from scoring a try, and New Zealand never really looked liked threatening the Lions line.

    The Lions scored two great tries, through Taulupe Falateau and Conor Murray. The game was 21-all, in the last minutes, but Owen Farrell kicked a penalty, and the Lions ran out winners.

    It was the first Lions victory over New Zealand since the second Test of the 1993 series (that game was actually played in Athletic Park, Wellington. Athletic Park was later knocked down and Westpac Stadium was built in its place).

    The poor weather conditions nullified the attacking flair of both teams, certainly in the first half. The advantage went back and forth, with Barrett and Owen Farrell exchanging penalties.

    Then toward the 20-minute mark, Williams had his moment of madness. Lions wing, Anthony Watson, had been tackled by a New Zealand player, and Williams charged into Watson’s head, shoulder first.

    The ref penalised him with a red card, and Williams became the first All Black to be red carded in 50 years (technically, rugby didn’t have red cards back then. Players were just ordered from the field).

    Sonny Bill Williams New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Pemberton)

    Red cards are still a rarity in rugby, and only Elliot Daly and CJ Stander from the Lions 23 had received a red card while playing for their respective countries.

    It was a shame that such a brilliant, dynamic player had to leave the field in such circumstances and Williams will also miss the last Test as he has been given a four-week ban by the citing commission.

    Watson had to leave the field to undergo a head injury assessment (HIA), which he passed and returned to the game.

    The Lions were unable to capitalise on their one-man advantage and New Zealand tore ahead into the second half, 18-9. Then the ball made its way to Liam Williams, who passed on to Falateau, who barrelled through Israel Dagg to score in the corner. The angle was too far out for Farrell, though, and he missed the conversion.

    The score was now 18-14, and Barrett kicked another penalty after repeated infringements by Mako Vunipola. Vunipola was yellow carded and didn’t reappear on to the field, after the allotted ten minutes had expired, his place been taken by Jack McGrath.

    The Lions needed to score a converted try to stay in the game, and that’s exactly what they did. Jamie George made a strong break before going to ground close to the All Blacks line.

    Conor Murray picked the ball from the ruck and beat the defence to score from close range. Farrell slotted the conversion and the game went into the last ten minutes with both teams level, 21-all.

    Farrell kicked the winning penalty and the Lions kept New Zealand out. Murray kicked the ball into touch after the hooter sounded, and the stadium rocked to the sounds of the great Lions fans celebrating.

    The third Test has now become the decider for the series, which is ideal. The outcome is really too difficult to predict. The teams have been pretty level all series, with nothing much separating the sides.

    Conor Murray British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

    (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

    The dilemma now for Warren Gatland is whether he retains the team that won the match, or makes some changes. Most of the pack played well, with George, Mario Itoje, Sean O’Brien and Falateau coming in for particular plaudits.

    Alun Wyn Jones was much improved on the first Test, with his replacement, Courtney Lawes having a good game as well. Vunipola gave away a number of penalties and will be lucky to start the last Test, he is better as an impact player anyway.

    Sam Warburton played well, linking with O’Brien. It was actually the first game the two had played together, though both had appeared on the 2013 tour as well as this one. The high penalty is a mark against his ability to control his team, however.

    Murray had a great game, capped by his try. The Sexton-Farrell combination worked well, though there could be an argument for bringing Dan Biggar in the last Test, for greater distribution.

    Davies and the back three did well, though had less of an effect on the game than they did last week, because of the poor conditions.

    The series has turned around now for the Lions players, and the pressure is on New Zealand. The deciding Test may well go down as one of the greatest games in rugby history.