The Lions threw absolutely everything at the All Blacks on Saturday night, squeaking home with a 24-21 win in Wellington. The result keeps the series alive heading into next week’s Eden Park decider, to the delight of rugby neutrals everywhere.
The match was not without drama, however, with a number of flashpoints dotted throughout the 80 minutes.
Sonny Bill sees red
What else would we start with? Replayed and rewound so frequently during the coverage it was basically a Boomerang. Old habits were the undoing of the former NRL enforcer when he went shoulder-first on Anthony Watson’s melon.
Watson, pinned by another tackler, ducked into the contact, but the replays were incriminating as Williams’ showed no intent to use his arms, crunching the neck of the ball carrier. The match officials deliberated, but referee Jerome Garces was adamant ‒ SBW had to go.
It changed the complexion of the game after just 25 minutes of figurative arm wrestling. The All Blacks, remarkably, still controlled the game for long periods but couldn’t quite hold on.
Justice for Kaino
The most intriguing tactical shuffle came as a result of Williams’ dismissal. Kiwi coach Steve Hansen responded by hauling backrower Jerome Kaino off for Ngani Laumape on debut.
Laumape made a number of strong runs, bending an otherwise determined Lions defensive line. It also forced Anton Lienert-Brown into occasional scrum duty.
Presumably Hansen trusted the mobile All Black forwards to pick up the slack, but the game plan couldn’t do without a dynamic midfield ball runner.
Spare a thought for Kaino, who did nothing to deserve the hook. I mean damn, what would Jeromey Romey Romey Rome think? He wasn’t happy.
True grit from Gatland’s men
It would be remiss not to tip the cap to the Lions’ resolve. They needed the result and they got it. There were a couple of lucky breaks along the way, but they aimed up and took their chances.
Their discipline needs improvement ‒ they conceded 13 penalties and a yellow card ‒ but results live far longer in the memory than penalty counts.
The Lions had 39 per cent possession and 31 per centterritory, despite mostly playing with an extra man.
Despite this, they made four linebreaks to zero – zero! – missed nine tackles compared to 16, and ended up with two tries to none. It was the first time in three years that the Kiwis have been held tryless.
When is a tackle in the air not a ‘tackle in the air’?
It ended up being the decisive call of the match. Charlie Faumuina aimed up for a regulation tackle in the 77th minute when Lions’ substitute Kyle Sinckler leapt to gather a high pass from Conor Murray.
He was deemed to take the man in the air illegally. Farrell stepped up to convert the penalty which won the game.
My understanding was that the rule only applied when jumping to catch kicks, but the wording of the law 10.4(e) under ‘Dangerous tackling’ merely states “A player must not tackle an opponent whose feet are off the ground.”
So, technically correct to the letter of the law, but farcical to enforce it as such. There’s no way Faumuina could have adjusted and Kieran Read rightly asked if he could win penalties simply by jumping into opponents.
It was one of many head scratchers by the referee who hardly endeared himself to the people of Wellington.
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A tale of two playmakers
The match might not have been a rollicking spectacle of expansive play but, in such a tense contest, game management was key. Owen Farrell had some nice touches and kicked five from six under pressure.
Johnny Sexton marshalled his troops well at 10 and threw some killer passes, including one to put big Jack McGrath through a hole to set up Murray’s try.
Both aimed up well in defence, and they had plenty of allies on that front.
In contrast, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden both kicked away crucial possession late on, looking uncharacteristically flustered.
Roll on, Eden Park.