The All Blacks had many chances to put the tourists aways, but Warren Gatland’s men were gritty.
IT WAS A bizarre ending to an utterly brilliant game, one that was sickeningly tense and finished in the most anti-climatic manner one could have imagined.
The Lions will leave New Zealand having pulled off a major achievement in drawing this series and Warren Gatland’s stock has certainly risen, the tourists having been odds-on to depart after a 3-0 series loss.
In truth, the All Blacks will have major gripes about not being given one final chance to steal the win.
After Owen Farrell has shown cojones to level the game at 15-15 with just minutes left, the All Blacks were awarded a penalty from the restart, when Liam Williams knocked on and Ken Owens gathered the ball in an offside position as he retreated.
But referee Romain Poite bottled the decision, asking for a TMO check and then incredibly changing his call to an All Blacks’ attacking scrum, reasoning that Owens had only accidentally looked to catch the ball.
In any other circumstances, it was a penalty. The All Blacks and Steve Hansen are likely to be furious.
Still, it would have been a sickening way for the Lions to lose a series in which they have shown so much grit and resilience.
The Lions will be dejected with their own alarming error count again tonight, however, and in truth the Kiwis should have put them away before half time, but they once again showed grit to stay in the fight.
Not scoring more than three points in the 10 minutes Jerome Kaino spent in the sin bin for a high tackle on Alun Wyn Jones was damaging for the Lions, while their set-piece stuttered at key moments in the second half.
With a boisterous crowd of 48,609 in Eden Park, there wasn’t a second of dead action in this encounter, one that once again underlines how truly special Lions tours are.
With a raft of HIAs in a brutal second half, the Lions clung on and clung on, Farrell’s four penalties and a long-range effort from Elliot Daly keeping them in touch.
The All Blacks scored two first-half tries through Ngani Laumape and the brilliant Jordie Barrett, both of whom were making their first Test starts, but they had many other chances to pull clear of the Lions.
This group of All Blacks will have major regrets, but so too will the Lions.
Early Lions errors allowed Beauden Barrett to show his shakiness off the tee in this third Test, as he missed a third minute penalty, and there was another major let-off moments later when Julian Savea dropped the ball with the tryline wide open in front of him after excellent work from the Barrett brothers.
Sam Warburton was attacking the breakdown as the Lions looked to ease the pressure, but two big errors from Farrell – a knock-on and a kick into touch on the full – provided further chances for the Kiwis.
Farrell’s poor start continued as the Lions missed a huge try-scoring chance during an incredible passage of play, the Englishman’s pass intercepted metres out from the All Blacks’ tryline with a clear overlap on the right.
Jordie Barrett was the man to pick it off and he offloaded to Laumape, who was only stopped from streaking all the way to the other end by a brilliant Jonathan Davies covering tackle.
Though the Lions were able to clear to touch, they finally conceded on the very next All Blacks’ attack, Beauden Barrett firing a kick pass wide to the right where his younger brother brilliantly leaped and tapped the ball back infield, Laumape gathering it on the bounce to dot down – a stunning score from the three Hurricanes men.
Barrett nailed the sideline conversion, but it was his failure to roll away from a tackle that allowed Farrell to kick the Lions onto the scoreboard at 7-3 soon after.
In truth, the All Blacks should have pulled further clear before the half-hour mark but knocks-ons from Sam Cane – after a huge carry from ‘The Bus’ Savea – and then Laumape saw them squander chances.
And somehow the Lions drew back to within a point in the 33rd minute, Farrell punishing the Kiwis for hands in the ruck.
Indeed, it appeared that the tourists were finally getting a real grip on the game, only for out-half Sexton to roll his left ankle as he offloaded to Farrell – he battled on until late in the game – and then Sam Whitelock won a hugely important breakdown turnover penalty for the All Blacks.
They kicked up into the Lions’ half and manufacture a quite stunning try. Brodie Retallick made the initial metres through the lineout, before Beauden Barrett hit Laumape running a direct line in midfield.
The dynamic centre got to Farrell’s outside shoulder and lured Davies into biting in on him too, opening space for a wondrous one-handed offload to Anton Lienert-Brown, who was then able to draw in Williams and hit Jordie for a straightforward finish.
Out-half Barrett missed the conversion, another poor strike pulled wide, and despite the many Kiwi chances, the Lions would have had to have been relieved to trail only 12-6.
Sexton surprisingly returned after the half-time break but the Lions lost Sean O’Brien to injury, the openside flanker having damaged his shoulder in the latter stages of the first half as Jerome Kaino hit him with a violent and legal counter-ruck.
But the Lions had an early boost after that blow, Daly landing a monster penalty from inside his own half in the second minute of the second half, after Kieran Read – winning his 100th cap – took out halfback Conor Murray at a ruck.
The All Blacks once again let the Lions off the hook once again two minutes later, as Jordie Barrett’s pass to the unmarked Savea flew clearly forward in the Lions 22 and referee Poite correctly called play back.
Sexton had to depart for a HIA in the 48th minute after what his Lions team-mates Farrell and Murray felt was a “shoulder charge to the head” by Beauden Barrett – the match officials content was not the case.
There was cause for another HIA moments later as Kaino tackled Alun Wyn Jones around the head and after a brief TMO review, the All Blacks flanker was sent to the bin – no doubt in Poite’s mind this time either.
Suddenly, the Lions were presented with a huge opportunity against 14 men and Jordie Barrett produced two errors under the high ball as the Kiwis showed signs of wobbling.
The tourists attacked promisingly down the right touchline, but Williams’ offload to Anthony Watson crept forward, just before Sexton returned from his HIA.
Jordie Barrett’s streak of errors continued as he kicked out into touch on the full just outside the All Blacks’ 22 and under pressure from Davies, but the Lions centre then knocked on as Gatland’s side looked to twist the screw and capitalise on the pressure.
They did finally take their chance to level the game at 12-12 with Kaino still in the bin, Farrell firing over a 47-metre penalty after Retallick was pinged for a high tackle on replacement Courtney Lawes – on for Jones.
Momentum was firmly back in the Lions’ favour but their latest encouraging attacking passage ended with a Lawes knock-on inside the All Blacks’ 22 – such a deathbed for their attack.
It was the set-piece that allowed the Kiwis back in front, however, with replacement tighthead Kyle Sinckler penalised for collapsing the scrum under pressure in Lions’ territory.
That came just after some superb defence – and after Warburton was the latest to go for a HIA, curiously replaced by Jones, who had looked rocky before going for his own and being replaced by Lawes – but Barrett was able to pop over the three points from directly in front of the posts for a 15-12 lead.
Gatland responded by sending on Rhys Webb for Murray, but another set-piece failing provided frustration for the Lions as George threw crooked for a second time, and he was replaced by Owens directly after that error.
It was a sickeningly tense affair at this stage and though both sides made mistakes, the Lions’ proved more costly next.
Fullback Williams spilled the ball forward on his 22-metre line as the All Blacks produced some clever tactical kicking, but Webb, Farrell and Itoje combined for a fantastic choke tackle on Dagg to regain possession.
Replacement prop Wyatt Crockett’s failure to roll away was then cleverly magnified by Webb in the 78th minute and Farrell showed balls of steel to hammer over the penalty from just inside the All Blacks half to level the game once again at 15-15.
There was still time for more drama but after Poite’s big decision, the All Blacks couldn’t find their way over the tryline.
They burst to within metres of the Lions’ tryline but the tourists were gritty in dragging them across the touchline to secure a share of the spoils. And everyone in Eden Park finally breathed, though the finale was so unsatisfying.
ALL BLACKS: Jordie Barrett; Isreal Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape (Malakai Fekitoa ’67), Julian Savea (Aaron Cruden ’73); Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith (TJ Perenara ’74); Joe Moody (Wyatt Crockett ’58), Codie Taylor (Nathan Harris ’73), Owen Franks (Charlie Faumuina ’58); Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock (Scott Barrett ’72); Jerome Kaino (yellow card ’50), Sam Cane (Ardie Savea ’60), Kieran Read (captain).
LIONS: Liam Williams; Anthony Watson (Jack Nowell ’73), Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly; Johnny Sexton (Ben Te’o ’48 to ’53, permanent ’73), Conor Murrat (Rhys Webb ’69); Mako Vunipola (Jack McGrath ’60), Jamie George (Ken Owens ’70), Tadhg Furlong (Kyle Sinckler ’60); Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones (Courtney Lawes ’50); Sam Warburton (captain) (Alun Wyn Jones ’67 to ’73), Sean O’Brien (CJ Stander ‘HT), Taulupe Faletau.
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