Lions back in the series as All Blacks see red

All Blacks reduced to 14-men in 25th minute as Sonny Bill Williams sent off

New Zealand 21 British & Irish Lions 24

We have a test series. It's for days, occasions and most of all games like this that millions love rugby and love sport. An epic Lions win, one to tell the grandchildren about, has tied the series at 1-1 and it's now conceivable that next Saturday's decider in the All Blacks' Eden Park fortress will be even bigger again.

As the Westpac Stadium thundered to the deafening conclusion, with encouragement and then acclaim given the heroes in red, it scarcely seemed credible that the capacity was 38,931, or that only about half of them were Lions’ fans.

The All Blacks were forced to play the last 55 minutes with 14 men after Sonny Bill Williams was red carded by Jerome Garces. The French referee had little choice after the centre connected with Anthony Watson in the head with his leading right-shoulder, hardly using his arms in the hit at all.

To put all of this in some sort of perspective, he is the first All Blacks player since Colin Meads in 1967, and third in history, to be sent off. It’s also the All Blacks first defeat in Wellington since 2003 against England, since when they’d won 17 in a row, and they’d also won 45 tests in a row since their last defeat on home soil, against South Africa in Hamilton in 2009.

There were, by then, signs that the Lions, their pride wounded, were different animals this week.

Warren Gatland had openly bemoaned the Lions' lack of physicality when the All Blacks big rumblers ran hard off Aaron Smith last week, and at the breakdown, also calling upon his retained players to show their pride as well as re-enforcing their strength in contact by promoting Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton.

It worked. The Lions ultimately made 112 tackles to 53, missing only 10 to the All Blacks dozen, and conceding only one line break while making six themselves. Itoje, Toby Faletau, the immense Sean O'Brien and sam Warburton made 49 tackles between them.

The All Blacks struggled to generate anything like the same go-forward as a week ago, with the recalled Warburton and Itoje, and the retained Alun Wyn Jones relishing this war of attrition.

They didn’t miss a single tackle in the first half but having turned around at 9-9, and with territory a premium given how strict Garces was at the breakdown and his assistants with the offside line, the Lions lost their way and very nearly the plot.

Trailing 18-9 nearing the hour, they conjured the first of two wonderful tries, before Owen Farrell kicked them in front for the first time in the 77th minute. By then, the force was fully with them, and while the contest was coloured by Sonny Bill's red card, there was no disputing the Lions deserved to win. They again played with way more ambition than the All Blacks, who kicked more and attacked more narrowly again, albeit the weather and their numerical disadvantage contributed to this.

Gatland’s third change saw them play with two outhalves in the Johnny Sexton- Farrell axis and the ball was in the air more often than a Sunday in Croke Park. Ultimately, though, it was the creativity of Sexton and Farrell which sparked the two tries and was the difference between the teams.

This was an outstanding victory, plotted for, and then achieved, brilliantly.

As forecast, this epic occasion took place in a downpour of almost biblical proportions and there was a gusting win to compound matters. The crowd looked to be split 50-50, although the Lions were altogether noisier in the build-up. That said, they were respectfully quiet for the New Zealand anthem, sung with even more gusto than in Eden Park it seemed, and then the Haka.

The first of the night's aerial bombs was from Aaron Smith, chased by Israel Dagg and Liam Williams failed to gather. But after Sexton returned Barrett's kick with a good touchfinder, Daly then held an overcooked Smith bomb straight off the lineout.

Pressure from Alun Wyn Jones forced a turnover at the next All Blacks’ lineout and the Lions then attacked the blindside off a solid scrum with O’Brien twice, Itoje and best of all Furlong carrying hard.

Williams then chased his own up-and-under, which Dagg couldn't gather, and the Lions generated some good tempo of their next phased attack. Sexton and Farrell were interchanging nicely, and after Vunipola charged through Sam Cane and Joe Moody, Sexton took Farrell's pass as second receiver to release Williams, but his tip on pass was adjudged forward.

When Jerome Kaino got through Farrell's tackle and was hauled down by Jones, O'Brien went for the poach but was adjudged off his feet. Barrett, who hadn't missed a kick last week, hit the outside of the left upright with the 30-metre penalty from in front of the posts. The Lions' fans gasped as much as they cheered.

The Lions were already showing more line-speed and appetite for stopping the All Blacks behind or on the gain line, with Warburton and Jones bringing their ‘A’ games.

As Garces took the warring Jones and Retallick aside along with the captains, for the second time, as the stadium PA pumped out the beat for the ‘Wai-sake Na-holo’, the Lions fans commandeered it with their chant of ‘Ma-ro It-oje’. They wouldn’t be blasting that beat out again.

However, Vunipola went down at the ensuing scrum and this time Barrett opened the scoring.

Whereupon the game changed in tenor completely.

Watson re-gathered a loose ball and ran it back, but as he was being tackled by Naholo, Williams came with a shoulder into Watson’s face. Several Lions players, including Murray, immediately held up their hands in protest, and after a few seconds Garces was encouraged to stop the game and have another look.

No amount of repeated viewings could alter the initial view that it was worthy of a sending off. It was similar to the unpunished Cane hit on Robbie Henshaw in the Aviva which put the Irish centre of that game last November; only worse.

Garces informed Williams and Read: “I have no option. It was contact with the head and the neck. I have to protect the players.” With that, he brandished the red card.

Watson was taken off for an HIA, while the All Blacks’ think tank responded by bringing on the local Hurricanes centre Laumape for his debut after playing 80 minutes against the Lions last Tuesday, and sacrificed Kaino in opting for a seven-man pack.

After O’Brien and Warburton linked well for some good yards in their first ever outing together, Sexton gathered another loose ball and kicked long, only to see the ball spin and skid over the dead ball line, thereby giving the All Blacks a scrum back on the Lions 10-metre line.

Watson returned as Barrett lined up another successful penalty, given against Murray for not releasing. But when Itoje athletically reclaimed Sexton’s hanging restart up the middle, Whitelock was done for not rolling away and Farrell drew the sides level again.

Vunipola was then harshly done for going off his feet, which if he did was for a split second in what was, after all, underfoot conditions resembling aquaplaning. Barrett made it 9-6.

The rain had suddenly relented. Dagg, Watson and Williams took three high balls amid one spillage by Naholo in the space of two minutes. It also allowed the Lions to go through some phases and even apply some width for Jonathan Davies to make a good break after the visitors' dismembered the seven-man All Blacks' scrum on their own put in.

With an advantage for hands in the ruck, Murray's cross kick toward Toby Faletau on the right was lost by Reiko Ioane in the air, and had Watson been closer to the ball, he'd have scored. In the event, Farrell closed out the half by making it 9-9.

If Garces was going to be consistent, territory would go a long way towards winning this game. Which made it surprising that Murray twice kicked for touchfinders to inside the halfway line at the start of the second half.

Barrett missed his second eminently kickable penalty after Itoje had been pinged for offside, at the behest of Jaco Peyper on the touchlines.

But at Peyper’s insistence again, Murray was then penalised for a high tackle on Anton Lienart-Brown.

When Itoje was caught offside again, Garces, went all the way back to the 10-metre line, after playing several phases and 40 metres. Barrett steered the kick wide again, but as with his previous misses, the Lions again transgressed. Straight from the long restart, Vunipola charged into Barrett late. There wasn’t anything like the same impact, nor the same leading shoulder, but the crowd howled with indignant derision.

Vunipola escaped with a penalty, which Barrett nailed, but within moments the prop left Barrett poleaxed again when needlessly diving onto the prostrate outhalf away from the ball. He fully deserved his yellow card, and not surprisingly did not return.

Barrett, having been seemingly flat out, got to his feet and took the penalty to touch and Davies was then penalised for offside. The Lions’ loss of discipline was scarcely believable. Barrett made it 18-9.

Earning a lineout nearing the hour mark, the Lions finally made their first foray of the second-half into All Blacks' territory. Sexton worked his loop with Farrell going right, Davies and Elliot Daly fed Watson on the right, before Sexton and Farrell combined going left for Williams to hit Faletau in space, and he dipped to beat Dagg's tackle and score by the corner flag.

It felt like it wasn't going to be the Lions night when Daly used his big left boot to launch the ball from inside his own 22, only to see bounce fully 40 metres along the greasy top and just over the dead ball line. From the resultant attacking scrum, Maumape was launched up the middle and Kyle Sinckler was deemed offside allowing Barrett to make it 21-14.

Back came the Lions. Off another lineout inside half-way, they rumbled again. From off-the-top ball via Itoje, Davies carried strongly up the middle and within a couple of phases Farrell drifted off Sexton, and Jamie George took a lovely line from Sexton's pass for a clean break to within five metres. Amid shadesof Chicago, Murray dummied and sniped for the line. Farrell's conversion drew the sides level.

Two attacks. Two tries.

In part energised by replacements, the Lions’ pressing and appetite for collisions not only stopped the All Blacks attempts at runners off their scrum-half, but drove them back about 15 metres, before Laumape dropped the ball.

Now it was the Lions' turn to attack, Farrell stepping for a good carry, before Sinckler jumped to gather a Murray pass and was tackled low by Charlie Faumuina. The All Blacks reserve tight-head could count himself a touch unlucky.

Farrell unerringly kicked the penalty to put the Lions ahead for the first time in the match in the 77th minute. There was still time for two Barrett counter-attacks, the second following a huge touchfinder by Murray. But O’Brien read Barrett’s chip and gathered, and that was it. He had more one big rumble, and must have savoured his first win over the All Blacks, against whom he always excels, after the Lions ran down the clock and Murray kicked it dead.

Oh yeah, series on now alright. And to back to Eden Park we go. That should be interesting.

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 mins 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: Nathan Harris (Chiefs) for Taylor (80 mins), 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).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times