Despite Kieran Read’s kind words I, and I think everyone else in the world, is looking at a moment in the 25th minute when Sonny Bill Williams forgot he was playing Rugby Union and hit Watson in the head (which is illegal in both codes) with his shoulder (which is still legal in the other code) as if he was still playing Rugby League. The decision from Garces was right, and a batch of long-standing records tumbled: The All-Blacks have been beaten in New Zealand for the first time in eight years, in Wellington for the first time in 14 years and have had a player sent off for the first time in 50 years!
Throughout the match being down to 14 players didn’t seem to daunt the All Blacks and it until the final three minutes or so it seemed they might even win it.
The conditions played their part, with both sides dropping the ball, particularly under high kicks and a few pressure passes, but the All Blacks generally adapted better to this. The Lions snuck home very late, with a nicely worked try to Faletau who bundled over Dagg on the wing, who had been moved there to replace Naholo who was off for an HIA, and a bit of sniping by Connor Murray who looked to be the beneficiary of a bit of foul play as Perenara was taken out by a Lion on the floor to me, but Garces wasn’t interested in checking with the TMO. It took the Lions until 75 minutes to get ahead, and even then the All Blacks nearly came back to win the game. There were also a couple of chances to score tries where the kicks through were slightly misdirected or bounced in unlucky directions that the All Blacks will rue, one from each of Barrett and Cruden.
For the first time the Lions made and converted their chances but this match will be remembered for the ill discipline on both sides. The Lions players tried to protest that Garces was “evening things up” when he yellow carded Vunipola, but the citing officer might look at both Vunipola and O’Brien for forearms to the head - Vunipola was carded (it could have been red) and O’Brien wasn’t (but might have seen yellow) but in this day and age there is low tolerance for it. We’ve certainly seen the end of SBW for this series, it’s a question now of who else. And there’s a longer term question of SBW’s career. New Zealand isn’t short of midfield players and Laumape had a lot of great carries, especially in the second half.
A final comment on chances, and defences: during a yellow card, you expect a side, on average to score 7 unanswered points. In effect the Lions had 5.5 continuous yellow cards. Expecting them to score 38.5 unanswered points might be unreasonable but staggering to a 24-21 win is not convincing.
That said, some of Gatland’s selections certainly paid off. Alun Wyn and Itoje worked nicely as locks and were far better together than Kruis and Alun Wyn. Warburton and O’Brien worked well in all phases of the game. Sexton and Farrell, less impressive. They made the Faletau try - you have to wonder if any other player at 12 could have messed it up though, as it was really made wider out - and they pulled the defensive line out of shape, with O’Brien trying to cover their channel, and as Laumape grew into the game, not completely succeeding.
This game was, more or less, a reversal of the script. The All Blacks scored in lumps of three and the Lions scored a couple of tries and ran out winners. But, ultimately, it was all down to a rush of shoulder to the head and an undoubtedly magical player but one who just might never don the black jersey again.
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