Lions talking points: All Blacks throw away the series
Late decision to downgrade penalty offence a brave but questionable call
New Zealand’s captain Kieran Read. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealand’s inside centre Ngani Laumape scores the first try . Getty Images
New Zealand won’t wonder how they failed to win the match. They’ll know instinctively that they were undone by their own hand - or hands to be precise. They created chances, hitting to hurt and turnover possession, but could not convert into points.
Time and again during their periods of dominance they rumbled over the gain line, got past the first wave of red-shirted tacklers, guaranteeing quick ruck ball. But as the momentum started to quicken, patience and precision were abandoned.
New Zealand made more handling errors in this match than they will in the entire Rugby Championship later in the summer. Of course there is mitigation in some well-judged tackling by the Lions, but many errors were unforced and were avoidable.
The All Blacks were thinking of the next phase when they hadn’t secured the goal of winning the previous one.
This draw will grate horribly because they scored two tries and could have tagged on potentially another three in the first half alone. And as the Lions discovered earlier in the tour, if chances aren’t taken a team is vulnerable on the scoreboard; so it proved at Eden Park.
The Lions deserved credit for the manner in which they refused to buckle when it appeared they would, negotiating injuries to key players and some ropey performances by others, all the while continuing to function under massive pressure.
They didn’t create much by way of try scoring chances and when they briefly threatened there was a carelessness there. They really shouldn’t have been able to survive in terms of the outcome, but they did and that’s down to the tremendous placekicking of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly.
If either had been playing for Zealand then the All Blacks would have won the series 3-0. New Zealand rugby possesses so much razzle-dazzle but ultimately it’s something as mundane as kicking the ball off a tee that left a hung series. The Lions clung to their task like chewing gum, ultimately proving impossible to remove.
The Lions needed their experienced players to take prominent leadership roles in terms of quality and some did, particularly the outstanding Jonathan Davies, Talupe Faletau, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray. For others - Alun Wyn Jones, Mako Vunipola, and Farrell (placekicking aside) - their contributions were underwhelming and didn’t reflect talent.
The visitors lacked a little zip, pep in their step and were lethargic initially as if taken aback the ferocity of the New Zealand challenge. That lack of hustle cost them points. The interception was a classic example of the fuzzy thinking that permeated their patterns for much of the game.
They came back, hung in and rode their luck but had they produced the same quality of rugby as they did in the second test, the same accuracy and intensity, then they would have emulated the standard-bearers of 1971.
Fire and ice
The opening exchanges in any match require a team to be hugely physical in an attempt to dominate all the collision points, all the while maintaining the calm precision required to effectively execute the gameplan.
New Zealand bossed that passage of the match and there was a great deal to admire about the efficiency and they manner in which they dissected and neutralised the Lions rush defence by employing the cross-kicking game. They scored two tries and might have had five because there was nothing to temper the fire.
Unusually for a nation of rugby players rightly celebrated for their wonderful skill-sets, it was the basic handling, kicking and protection that denied them the victory they deserved on the balance of play.
The Lions survived because of the extraordinary contributions, and result defining reads, of players like Maro Itoje, Davies, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson in defence at a time when it was largely static and passive, allowing the All Blacks easy gain-lines and offloads out of the tackle.
Andy Farrell deserves credit for recalibrating the Lions defence at half-time and making it more effective in the second half.
New Zealand’s re-starts were in a different stratosphere to the Lions and almost won them the match. Referee Romain Poite backtracked on a decision to award a penalty he’d already verbalised, downgrading it from offside to accidental offside, much to the chagrin of the hosts.
That decision didn’t go New Zealand’s way but they won so many re-starts and that gave them possession and position. It was a real Achilles heel for the Lions that caused massive problems.
That last example defied logic. Why did the Lions put fullback Williams in what is essentially an orthodox space for a secondrow and then compound matters by giving him a lifter, who did a half-hearted job. From an organisational perspective it was a bizarre call. Williams’ aerial work on this tour hasn’t been great, so why would a coach put him in a position of prominence in that regard? Answers on a postcard please. It could have cost the tourists the game and the series.
It wasn’t just that one, Beauden Barrett’s delivery was superb and the work of the chasers on tap backs was singularly purposeful and effective. In contrast, the Lions invariably drifted a few metres too far to either contest or apply worthwhile pressure.
Two crooked lineout throws were unfortunate in terms of position on the pitch and the timing in terms of the match clock, denying the Lions the opportunity to exert potentially match-winning pressure. But it was the tourists inability to get organised to consistently put pressure on the New Zealand throw that was disappointing because it’s an area in which the Kiwis were vulnerable based on the evidence of the first two tests.
The idea of trying to walk over scrum ball on the threshold of their own 22 against a formidable All Blacks unit was a moment of absolute lunacy and cost them a cheap three points. Kyle Sinckler was penalised but this was a massive system error and that’s where the blame lay.
It’s funny how the laws of rugby can change predicated on the confluence of match time and the score. Transgressions that would be punished in a heartbeat by penalties or free-kicks early in a game are seemingly no longer applicable if it’s a tight match with a big call.
For example, Poite was very definite in his decision-making in the scrum for most of the match but towards the end was content to play-on despite the fact that 10 of the six players had their noses two inches into the turf, collapsing like a rapidly deflated human bouncy castle.
Going for an interception one-handed and batting the ball down, a penalty offence 11-times out of 10, was suddenly permissible.
Poite, in consultation with his match officials, had a change of heart about whether Lions replacement hooker Ken Owens was offside, his revised choice of accidentally so, his decision. It was a brave call, the merit of which will be parsed over for the next 100 years.
The one thing that can be said is that if television match official George Ayoub had an input into the final decision, he shouldn’t have. TMO’s are not allowed to interfere with offside decisions as it falls outside World Rugby protocols.
It does beg the question though. Would the French referee have made the same call if the incident took place 90 seconds into the match rather than so close to the final whistle? The answer should be yes, but would it have been? I’m not so sure.
The New Zealand media will probably go potty over the Jerome Kaino yellow card. It was unequivocally correct in terms of the decision – I’d also be suspicious about whether he was bound for his clear-out on Sean O’Brien that ultimately led to the Irishman’s shoulder injury – but expect them to drag O’Brien, cleared after a citing hearing from the second test, into any debate.
Garces has been the best referee over the three tests, but overall Poite can be satisfied with his performance in some difficult circumstances in that third test.
During Jerome Kaino’s enforced 10-minute second half sabbatical, the Lions managed to rack up a litany of errors, shoehorning in a crooked throw, a forward pass, a knock-on and a fumble into touch. Instead of applying pressure they had to absorb it. It was careless and imprecise at a time when they should have been squeezing the pip.