Moments of the year: In the Wellington rain, the Lions struck back

The loss of the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid was undoubtedly the lowlight of the year

New Zealand All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams is shown the red card by referee Jerome Garces during the second Lions Test in Wellington. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images

New Zealand All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams is shown the red card by referee Jerome Garces during the second Lions Test in Wellington. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images

 

Highlight

To put this in some kind of context, nobody beats the All Blacks, especially in New Zealand. Ireland had been there five times between 2002 and 2012 and lost all nine tests, culminating in the 60-0 Hamilton horror show. More than ever, you just wanted to slink out of the country.

Throw in the three-Test whitewash of the 2005 Lions tour, and come this year’s Test series it seemed like a case of the same old same old after the All Blacks won the first test 30-15 in Eden Park.

Entering the second test in Wellington a week later, the Lions had won just six of 39 tests in New Zealand, and only two since their only series win 11 tours previously in 1971. The All Blacks had won 47 tests in a row at home since 2009. The Lions were 5/1 to win the match, and 18/1 to win the series.

The Westpac Stadium was drowned in rain, yet the atmosphere was electric; a 50-50 mix of red and black, mostly sodden and in rain macs. The temperature rose further in the 25th minute when Jerome Garces went to the TMO and video replays showed Sonny Bill Williams’ right shoulder clattering into the left side of Anthony Watson’s head.

To his credit, with little encouragement from his assistants Jaco Peyper and Romain Poite, Garces fulfilled his duty of care to the players and red-carded SBW, only the third All Black in history to be sent off.

It was 3-3 at the time. It was 9-9 at half time. The Lions seemed well placed, but a madcap, ill-disciplined third quarter saw Beauden Barrett kick the 14-man All Blacks’ 18-9 ahead. Whereupon, the Lions finally managed some field position, and the Johnny Sexton-Owen Farrell 10-12 axis went wide-wide. On the hour, Liam Williams’ pass and Toby Faletau’s superb finish in the left corner through Israel Dagg gave the Lions’ hope.

At 21-14 down, Jamie George cut through off Sexton’s short pass, and off the recycle our man Conor Murray seized the moment to dummy, snipe and finish. Farrell’s conversion drew the sides level and when Kyle Sinckler jumped to gather a Murray pass and was tackled low by Charlie Faumuina, Farrell held his nerve.

For the only three minutes in the series, the Lions led, and had levelled the series. On the touchline, the Lions’ joy was unconfined. Such were the deafening chants of ‘Li-ons, Li-ons” in the rain that it scarcely seemed credible the capacity was 38,931, or that only half of them were Lions’ fans.

The first and third tests weren’t too shabby either, but coming away from that game you felt you had witnessed a monumental sporting occasion as much as a rugby one.

Lowlight

Come the morning of the vote in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, there was a resigned air amongst the Irish delegation, and a feeling that the French would win. There were a few antic-climactic defeats off the pitch, but this was the most disappointing and far-reaching. It’s easy to be wise after the event, but the six-year campaign by the IRFU, GAA and both governments to bring the 2023 World Cup to Ireland was competitive, largely matching the financial promised made by France and South Africa in the recommendation report.

The Irish bid fell short in the latter due to the lack of ready-made stadia and comparative experience in hosting major sporting events, but it was also outflanked by the lobbying and dangling of financial carrots by Bernard Laporte and co. It would have been something, but you’d have to wonder if Ireland will ever bid again, much less be successful.

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