Fire ripped through the pouring rain at Eden Park on Saturday in the shape of the British and Irish Lions, who pulled off one of the greatest, and equally, nail-biting Test wins in Lions history. Written off by the great and the good, with coach Warren Gatland lambasted from every corner of the sporting press, the confident and calculated selection of his squad to tackle the second test was pitch perfect. The now familiar sight of the Haka is carrying less weight game by game and the Lion’s taste blood.
It was the All Blacks first defeat on home soil since South Africa in 2009, a whopping 3,680 minutes of rugby ago. It was also the first tryless game for New Zealand since 2014, a statistic that will leave Lions defence coach Andy Farrell a very happy man. But there’s still plenty of work to be done with the 13 penalties an issue.
The tide well and truly turned around the 23rd-minute mark when powerhouse dangerman Sonny Bill Williams dipped his shoulder and rammed it into Anthony Watson’s head, it was impossible not to give him a red card. Questions about Sexton and Farrell coping in defence were no longer an issue, and with 14 men there’d be no special treatment for Conor Murray. However, a New Zealand team with fourteen men is still a force to be reckoned with, something the mercurial Beauden Barrett’s three missed penalties will attest to.
Anyone who has played the game will know, skill, power and speed are only three of the qualities needed to win a game of rugby. The psychological aspect is huge, hunger, desire, belief and confidence are just as vital components. Jonathan Sexton looked composed and confident in the knowledge that his roommate was outside him, the unflappable Owen Farrell, one of the best distributors and kickers on the world stage right there on his shoulder and the combination allowed the wide runners into the game. Sexton knew that he could take chances, afford a quick offload here and there without putting the team on the back foot, and if he didn’t have time to look for runners, then Farrell would. It was the lesson that Eddie Jones learnt with an unprecedented amount of success.
That combined with a return to the engine room for the captain, Sam Warburton and Maro Itoje cementing cult status with the raucous travelling army of fans, gave the Lions the extra punch, power, and physicality that was missing in the 1st test. Warburton played his best game of the series and with Sean O’Brien bulldozing all in his path, the dynamic duo of Jerome Kaino and Waisake Naholo were snuffed out before they could even think about punching holes down the channel leading to Sexton. The chance of these Lions going down as the greatest touring party in rugby history is alive and well.
As the rain poured down in Wellington creating conditions that usually lead to a tight, kicking game, hopes diminished, but this Lions team is a different beast. They moved the ball around and played the All Blacks at their own game. Even before the red card, it was clear this Lions team were going to put it all on the line to ensure a decider at Eden Park.
The red of the Lions jersey gives birth to rugby stars and just as a certain Matt Dawson did, the swaggering brilliance of his dummy in South Africa in 1997, Connor Murray’s try in the 67th minute, after some brilliant work from Jamie George marked him as man who will be key to the 3rd test next week, and along with the brutal brilliance of Sean O’Brien cited but unscathed he’s a leading candidates for man of the series.
One area of genuine concern ahead of Saturday’s huge final test is the penalty count. Sure this is the All Blacks in New Zealand, they force mistakes but the Lions lack of discipline at times is worrying. Mako Vunipola so effective coming off the bench for England may find himself performing a similar role, he seemed to be hell-bent on giving away penalties and for the 3rd and final test, which would be one of the biggest in Lions history, his position has to be questioned, penalties must be kept to minimum.
The teams will be announced on Thursday with New Zealand forced to shuffle thanks to Williams’ four-week ban, it will be surprising if Gatland makes more than one change. But the Lions team that walks out onto the pitch next Saturday will be 100% different, the reason why? They now know that they have the ability to beat the All Blacks and create history, that confidence cannot be bought.
1994 was the last time the All Blacks lost at Eden Park, Maro Itoje wasn’t even born. Kieran Read and Steve Hansen were so gracious in defeat it was actually quite unsettling, to say they will be smarting is an understatement. Confidence is a restless bedfellow, but with the knowledge that they can beat the All Blacks assured, our Lions will be sleeping soundly. The 3rd test on 8th July is their Everest.
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