Gerry Thornley: Great rugby gave the Lions a great win
It was a far from perfect performance, but Gatland’s ‘pro-active’ selection was vindicated
Lions’ Conor Murray in action scoring a try on Saturday. Photograph: Anthony Phelps/Reuters
New Zealand 21 British & Irish Lions 24
An epic occasion has an epic match. It was flawed, fierce, dramatic, improbable, unrelenting, unpredictable and culminated in a stunning push for the victory line by the Lions. It will go down in the annals as not just one of the great Lions’ tests, but one of the great test matches.
As the battle reached its climax, the crescendo of chanting from the Red Army became deafening. To be there was spine-tingling. Even the biblical rain for much of the first 35 minutes added to the drama almost as much as Sonny Bill Williams’ red card in the 25th minute.
Inevitably the All Blacks dug deep. They’re not the back-to-back world champions who were on a run of 45 successive home wins dating back to 2009 for nothing. Teams have won with 14-men before, even when numerically disadvantage from the first-half, as Leinster were reminded in the Pro12 semi-final against the Scarlets.
Even so, at half-time and at 9-all, the Lions looked well set. With Jerome Garces severe at the breakdown, it seemed that with territory and patience the Lions should win. Whereupon they played the third quarter in their own half, lost their patience and their heads, and were fortunate to be only 18-9 adrift. While indisputably committed to the cause, the Lions possess some loose cannons.
They had been let off the hook – albeit a hook of their own making – by Beaduen Barrett’s failure to land three relatively straightforward penalties, even if in each instance he was almost immediately granted an opportunity to atone and duly did so.
So it was a far from perfect performance by the Lions, but on the verge of letting slip a golden opportunity, they didn’t so much wrench the game back as stealthily conceive two high quality tries. Then in the 15th round, they went toe to toe, first repelling an All Blacks multi-phase attack, then mounting one of their own.
Jerome Garces had a fine, courageous match in the most testing of circumstances. But one had some sympathy for Charlie Faumuina, as he had his head down and was already committed to the tackle when Kyle Sinckler jumped to receive Conor Murray’s pass. It wasn’t Faumuina’s fault that Sinckler had to jump and it wasn’t as if they were contesting a high kick.
Then again, the penalty count was 8-2 to the All Blacks in the second half, and 13-8 overall, and the Lions had been a tad harshly treated too, not least the high tackle against Murray, even though he had tackled Anton Lienert-Berown under his arm pit. (That was another call by Jaco Peyper from the sidelines). Codie Taylor’s late shoulder into Owen Farrell was every bit as bad as the first penalty against Vunipola.
Whatever. Ultimately fortune favoured the brave.
The Lions have set up another potential epic by levelling the series, and they did so by playing rugby.
Warren Gatland was thoroughly vindicated in all of his pro-active, or what were perceived as contentious, selections. The promoted Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton continued where they left off last week from the bench, the former bringing line speed and physicality in the breakdown albeit he conceded a couple of avoidable penalties.
Gatland retained Alun Wyn Jones, sensing what kind of response he would get from his Welsh lock. As much as anybody Jones drew the lines in the sand when driving back Joe Moody with the game’s first tackle, as the players answered the coach’s demands to show their pride and meet fire with fire in the contact and at the breakdown.
Warburton and the phenomenal Sean O’Brien, probably the worthiest of any man of the match gong, were starting a game together for the first time, and in this form O’Brien allows Warburton to play his game. He’s almost the captain’s perfect foil. The energy of O’Brien’s game and the aggression his tackles and carries did as much as anything to get the Lions on to the front foot in the trench warfare across the gain line. This so often gave Warburton a target to get over the ball. Toby Faletau’s workload was immense, and he deserved his try.
Gatland hailed his loose forward trio as excellent, and they were, but this admittedly comes with a sizeable caveat, namely they were up against a back-row shorn of Jerome Kaino, and Kaino looked in the mood too.
Until Mako Vunipola followed up his late charge on Barrett by diving onto him when prone on the ground, flirted with a red and deserved a yellow, if only for stupidity, had been immense. So too Furlong, who backed this up with a stronger night at the scrum, where the All Blacks put Lienert-Brown in the back-row.
The props needed replacing, with Jack McGrath and Sinckler adding as much impact as Courtney Lawes, but perhaps Gatland and co’s smartest moves were in otherwise not taking recourse to his bench even when losing and there would have been a clamour to do so.
There must have been a clarion call to bring on CJ Stander and Ben Te’o for some go-forward, but Gatland resisted. This was not the time to be more direct. And not only was O’Brien still going strong in the 80th minute, reading and gathering Barrett’s chip, then making one more charge off the recycle, but leaving the trump card of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell intact brought width to the Lions’ running game against 14 men and yielded two tries.
Te’o brings lots of attributes, but passing isn’t one of them.
Had Te’o been on the pitch, it’s doubtful that either would have been scored. Sexton is oft criticised for over-doing his trademark wrap, but when done slickly it’s damn hard to defend. Farrell showed lovely hands and perfect timing, while credit to Elliot Daly for skilfully taking Sexton’s slightly deflected pass and allowing Williams to release Anthony Watson on the right.
When they came back left after Itoje had trucked it up, it was Farrell who took Sexton’s pass and skip-passed to Liam Williams, who again gave the Lions something a little more at full-back in giving Faletau his run at Israel Dagg.
For the second try, Farrell drifted away from Sexton to draw a defender as the out-half deftly slipped Jamie George through the gap. Cue Murray’s dummy and dart for the try-line – his eighth try in his last 19 tests.
The Lions had been the more adventurous and ambitious in the first quarter and were again in the last. They nearly blew it but they won a great rugby match playing great rugby.
Scoring sequence: 20 mins Barrett pen 3-0; 23 mins Farrell pen 3-3; 32 mins Barrett pen 6-3; 34 mins Farrell pen 6-6; 37 mins Barrett pen 9-6; 40 (+3) mins Farrell pen 9-9; (half-time 9-9); 48 mins Barrett pen 12-9; 54 mins Barrett pen 15-9; 57 mns Barrett pen 18-9; 60 mins Faletau try 18-14; 67 mins Barrett pen, 21-14; 69 mins Murray try, Farrell con 21-21; 77 mins Farrell pen 21-24.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Rieko Ioane (Blues); Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders); Joe Moody (Crusaders), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs) Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders, captain). Replacements: Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders) for Moody, Charlie Faumuina (Blues) for Franks (both 52 mins), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs) for Naholo (60 mins), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) for Cane (64 mins), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes) for A Smith (66 mins), Ngane Laumape (Hurricanes) for Kaino (70 mins), Scott Barrett (Crusaders) for Whitelock (73 mins), Nathan Harris (Chiefs) for Taylor (80 mins).
Sent-off: Williams (25 mins).
British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England,) Jamie George (Saracens, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales, capt), Sean O’Brien (Leinster, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales). Replacements: Jack Nowell (Exeter, England) for Watson (26-31 mins).Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England) for Furlong (62 mins), Courtney Lawes (Northampton, England) for Jones (59 mins), Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland) for O’Brien (64-66 mins and for Vunipola (66 mins),
Not used: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales),CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland), Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England). Sinbinned: Vunipola (56-66 mins).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)