After a challenging game and loss last week, a scrutinised Lions squad travelled to the capital of New Zealand: Wellington. The team looked a massive gamble with last week’s star player Ben Te’o being sent to the bench to allow a new partnership in Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. Another notable omission was Peter O’Mahony; he went from last week’s captain to not even making his way into the 23! There were some astounding decisions from Warren Gatland but when you go 1-0 down in a series against the All Blacks, you have to show your cards.
The Westpac Stadium is the second largest sports ground in New Zealand and it was full to the rafters, mainly with Lions fans. ‘God defend New Zealand’ rang around the arena before it was replaced by an even more chilling anthem. The Haka! TJ Perenara led the way for the Kiwis as Sam Warburton and Owen Farrell showed the hardest stares for the Brits!
Beauden Barrett started poorly from the tee as he slapped a ball wide of the posts from in front but he did curl one over from outwide to make up for his mistake somewhat.
The Lions responded rather quickly through the reliable boot of Owen Farrell. The Englishman smashed over a terrific long range kick. 50 metres and an angle couldn’t stop Farrell!
The scores were all tied at 3-3 with neither team having grasped the game by it’s throat. Despite it being level pegging, the game and series were completely flipped. From what looked like scraps to feed on, Anthony Watson began to run a bouncing ball back at the Kiwis. The Bath winger made a nice step but was met on the gain line by Waisake Naholo and Sonny Bill Williams. As soon as Watson hit the floor, all of the Lions players threw their arms in the air to appeal for a dangerous tackle. Jerome Garces originally called play on until the TMO, George Ayoub, spoke through the earpiece. Johnny Sexton was un sportsmanly screaming at the linesman to make sure the challenge was looked at. On the replays, Naholo had made the first up tackle and Sonny Bill Williams had flown in with a no arms shoulder charge to the head. With a few glances, Garces and Ayoub came to the fair conclusion that it would be a red card! What a turning point not just in the Lions series 2017 but Sonny Bill’s career! He is the first All Black to be red carded in a test for 50 years and many people are already questioning his future for New Zealand. Will the offloading king ever play again in Black?
Despite the man advantage, it wasn’t the British and Irish Lions who got the next points. It was Beauden Barrett again who notched his second penalty of the match. Nonetheless Owen Farrell responded with a 3 pointer of his own and the scores were level again.
With a few minutes to go in the first half, Barrett slammed over one penalty. As the clock turned red, Farrell cancelled that out with a very tough kick from the touchline.
HALF TIME NEW ZEALAND 9 – 9 BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS
Beauden Barrett was having a shocking day from the kicking tee and 10 minutes into the first half he had already missed two out of his four attempts. However, he had kicked two over which meant that the All Blacks cruised into a narrow lead once more.
The Lions were failing to take advantage of the extra man and were made to pay when they were set back a man as well. Owen Farrell played Sean O’Brien on a short ball and the Irishman was dragged to ground by Beauden Barrett. Mako Vunipola flew in to clear Barrett out and after he made the contact, the Kiwi stayed down. The referee and TMO had a close look at it and it seemed fine. A textbook clear out. However, Garces saw it the other way and controversially showed Mako Vunipola a yellow card! It would be a 14-man game for 10 minutes!
Unlike the Lions and the Sonny Bill Williams red card, the All Blacks snapped up the opportunity for points and Barrett notched the resulting penalty. The British Lions were in desperate need of some hope. They needed the next score…
New Zealand were ahead by 9 points but that deficit was swiftly shortened to 4. Owen Farrell spun a beautifully perfect pass outwide to Liam Williams and the Welshman found another fellow countryman; the rumbustious back rower Taulupe Faletau! Faletau didn’t have much room but managed to run over the top of Israel Dagg with ease and finished very strongly with Brodie Retallick bearing down on him! What a finish from Faletau and it was game on.
Barrett’s goal kicks were the only thing that New Zealand could shout about although he did kick his 7th of the match to bring the All Blacks tally to 21 while the dominating Lions lagged behind on 14. The tourists really were the dominant team and they were finding holes left right and centre. Jonathan Sexton let Jamie George loose and hooker made a good 10 metres. The cavalry flooded in to secure the ruck ball and Conor Murray used his quick wit and the quick ball to take it down the blindside, throw a dummy and crash in! The mass of travelling supporters went wild but the kick still had to go over from Farrell. It was very tough but Farrell rose to the challenge and stepped up to strike the conversion! 21 all and what a finish to the game!
At 25 years old, Owen Farrell has already accumulated over 600 points for England but nothing could compare to the opportunity he was about to have… As the clock ticked on into the 76th minute, the Lions were awarded a penalty! It wasn’t too tough but pile on the pressure and the noise and it looks impossible. Nerves of steel do not break easily though and Farrell banged over the penalty amidst all of the expectations! What a game and it seemed to be swinging in the Lions favour due to the composure of every single Lion (especially Farrell!)
The whistle blew and it was history. Conor Murray pelted the ball off the pitch and it meant that Eden Park, July 8th 2017 would be the decider. The decider of a series which deserves a great send off. The New Zealand wall had taken a tumble and a first loss at Eden Park since 1994 would just add to the ‘disaster’. Wouldn’t it? It is a tough ask but the Lions have the calibre and the momentum to do it.
FULL TIME NEW ZEALAND 21 – 24 BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS