It’s difficult to know exactly how to begin this summary of Saturday’s final Lions fixture, mainly because I am still reeling from a quite extraordinary game that delivered excitement, drama and emotion in abundance – the sort of game that was befitting of the occasion.
The Lions and All Blacks threw the kitchen sink at each other in a brutal, uncompromising match which was possibly one of the most compelling test matches I’ve witnessed in many years. It wasn’t without a little controversy – most notably, the reversal of a penalty decision in the 78th minute which almost certainly would have gifted New Zealand victory. And, of course, with the final whistle blowing while the sides were drawing 15-15, there was a definite sense of frustration among the teams and the fans that the game should have continued until we had a winner!
As the dust settles, though, it seems to me a drawn series (both teams one a single test match each) is somehow quite befitting of what has been an epic test series, and a momentous tour. In some ways, this result has ensured the 2017 pride of British and Irish Lions a very special page rugby’s history books.
The All Blacks started the third test the brighter of the two sides, carrying with purpose and finding space out wide. Several uncharacteristic handling errors from the hosts, however, meant they led by only six points at half time.
It was a night when the pressure was apparent, and the big game players on both teams took centre stage. New Zealand fans may be outraged by referee Roman Poite’s decision to downgrade a late Lions sanction to “accidental offside”, denying the hosts a late opportunity to steal the win. However, there is no denying superb fly-half Beauden Barrett had a disappointing night with the boot, and the Kiwis could well have been out of sight at half time were it not for some explosive Lions defending.
Jonathan Davies produced a stunning, try saving tackle to cement his place as one of the tour’s top performers. The Scarlets centre has been in scintillating form, and has been hugely influencial in attack and defence across all three test matches. He went on to win the Player’s Player of the Tour award – deservedly so.
I was so impressed with the composure shown by Owen Farrell in slotting a 76th minute penalty from 50m, a kick which ultimately sealed the draw. He, too, has impressed on tour, and has shown a maturity in his game that complements well the more aggressive facets of his game. The combination of Farrell and Sexton in the 10/12 channel has grown game by game, and they fired on all cylinders in this game.
A special mention needs to go to Maro Itoje. I’ve admired him as a player for some time, but it’s nice to actually support a team in which he plays for a change! What a legend! The youngest member of the touring party is an absolute beast, and has shown a strength and athleticism which I think epitomises a modern rugby player. He is also a fierce competitor. Itoje is surely a Lions captain in waiting. His pairing in the second row with Alun Wyn Jones was simply a masterstroke from Warren Gatland: an explosive blend of youth and experience. Both played their hearts out on Saturday.
Here’s the post-match press conference for your viewing pleasure! SPOILER ALERT: Gatland shows up in a red clown nose in response to a cartoon in the New Zealand Herald last week, which aimed to lampoon and belittle the Lions head coach – can’t fault him!
So…that’s a wrap for another incredible Lions tour. Next up for the tourists: South Africa, 2021.