The New Zealand press react: Romain, you plonker!

Referee bears the brunt of criticism after Eden Park decider turns into ‘French farce’

After a dramatic 15-15 result in the last game of the series Warren Gatland and Sam Warburton reflect on the Lions performance and the referee’s last minute decision to reverse a New Zealand penalty. Video: Reuters

 

One of the best Test series in living memory - and the best Lions tour of a generation - reached a strange conclusion on Saturday morning.

The deciding third Test at Eden Park was one for the ages - a low-scoring, hard-fought epic in which the tourists weathered the mightiest of storms before slowly chipping away at the All Blacks.

But just as it was reaching a booming crescendo somebody pulled the plug - the ball was killed, Romain Poite blew his whistle and the game finished in a 15-15 draw.

There were no celebrations from either set of players, and there were no tears shed either - just looks of bemusement, disappointment and the realisation that after 240 minutes of the most brutal and brilliant rugby you could hope to see there would be no winner.

Yet while there will be regrets for the Lions, who will feel they have left a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity out on the pitch in Auckland, they deserve to emerge from the series with the majority of the plaudits.

Indeed, throughout the protracted build-up to the tour and during its opening weeks nobody gave Warren Gatland’s side a hope of winning a Test - never mind the series.

The claws of the New Zealand media were out for the Lions from the moment they scraped past the New Zealand Barbarians in their opening fixture - Gatland, they would have you believe, was nothing but a clown supported by a gaggle of circus freaks.

Warren Gatland wears a clown nose to his post-match press conference. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP
Warren Gatland wears a clown nose to his post-match press conference. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP

But slowly and surely the Lions arm-wrestled their way into the tour and into contention - with forward-led victories over the Crusaders and New Zealand Maori offering a blueprint to how the tourists would tackle the All Blacks.

Respect

After the opening Test 30-15 defeat at Eden Park a degree of respect for the Lions and Gatland seemed to be developing.

And while this grew in the wake of the tourist’s win in Wellington last weekend, the Kiwis had a ready-made excuse on which to pin their narrow defeat - Sonny Bill Williams’ red card.

And now, after the once-hapless Lions secured a draw at Eden Park, the Kiwi media have laid the blame squarely at the feet of referee Poite.

In the game’s dying moments Poite reduced an All Blacks penalty to a scrum after Ken Owens was caught accidentally offside - much to the consternation of captain Kieran Read.

And it wasn’t just New Zealand centurion Read who took exception to the decision. In the New Zealand Herald, Gregor Paul writes: “There’s not going to be any escaping the final minute of the final Test, sparking a lingering sense of confusion and frustration about a decision that was categorically wrong even if it had an emotional justification.

“Such a wonderful series, such a brilliant game now has the taint of controversy attached. Human error ultimately, reluctantly found a way to separate the teams in the last minute when Lions hooker Ken Owens was offside.

“And yet it was human error of a different kind that intervened to re-write history and deliver a drawn series.”

Plonkers

Former All Blacks prop and NZ Herald columnist Richard Low was slightly more to the point in his assessment of the officiating: “The standard of refereeing spoilt the All Blacks-Lions series. Both teams played well tonight - and across the other Tests - but the whistleblowers must up their games.

“All the players and coaches try their hearts out and do their best to deliver the utmost skill. Then we’ve got a group of plonkers - an Australian, a South African and two Frenchmen - who are meant to be the experts on the rules but don’t appear to know them.”

Pointing the finger at Poite was a familiar theme across much of the Kiwi press, with Phil Gifford of Stuff.co.NZ saying the Test descended into “a French farce in the last five minutes, when you felt referee Romain Poite was out of his depth and at a level beyond his abilities. At the end of the game the poor guy wasn’t even sure if the game was over.”

But as well as complaining about Poite costing the All Blacks the game - and, it must be remembered, Beauden Barrett was far from a certainty to land the late penalty - there is a unanimous agreement among the Kiwi press that Saturday’s Test was one to remember, despite the end result.

A series that gave us everything

And there is also a degree of respect for how the Lions performed in Auckland. In the NZ Herald, Liam Napier writes: “Can we have one more match, please? Surely, surely it can’t end like this. A draw is such an anti-climax to a series that, quite literally, gave us everything . . . The Lions were force to absorb one hell of an onslaught, and deserve immense credit for what they have come through after a brutal six week, 10 match tour. No-one gave them a real chance of getting to this point.

“The backlash from Wellington lived up to the hype. The All Blacks came with a relentless pace to brutally expose the Lions early. But they somehow found a way to hang tough.”

And on Stuff.co.NZ Mark Reason is gushing in his assessment of the Test, he writes: “So brilliant and so brutal. “Both teams peered into the void as the ferocity of the final Test match between the All Blacks and the Lions shook the ground and our hearts. And yet still there were moments of skill to dazzle this dark corner of New Zealand.

“Dark, because of all the black shirts in the stand. Dark, because of the fears that so many fans carried into this match. And so often games like this just cannot live up to the absurdity of the expectation. But this match - a 15-15 draw that saw the series shared 1-1 - will stand as one of the great tests in the history of the Lions in New Zealand.”

He goes on to say: “This was a night when sport put a magnifying glass on the human spirit and showed just how magnificent it can be.”

A fitting way, if not result, to end a magnificent series.

See you in 12 years to settle the score.

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