Saturday was the third and final Test and it was all still to play for. It was the biggest occasion of most of these players playing careers. Of course, every Test match is a big occasion but to be playing for the Lions against the All Blacks in the deciding Test match at Eden Park will be hard to beat.
It was always going to be a tough task, with the All Blacks winning the first test comfortably at this venue only two weeks prior to the decider and of course that unbeaten winning run at the ground. Having won the second Test, partly down to Sonny Bill Williams being sent off, they would have known that they would have to put in a special performance to come out on top at fortress Eden Park.
As we all know, the All Blacks rarely lose and when they do, they usually put it right the following week so the Lions knew that they would come out firing, which they did. They mixed things up this week, they were smart and played a wide game early on, testing the Lions in the wider channels and made some really good inroads in that area but when they needed to change it up due to the Lions press defence, they just dinked a kick in behind which worked fantastically well for the All Blacks in the early stages. This made the Lions hold back and defend from touchline to touchline with allowed their power runners to get them over the gain line and put them under a lot of pressure. The Lions would have been happy to only be six points down at the break because the All Blacks bombed two or three chances which doesn’t happen very often.
“…no one wants to be that player that makes a mistake when the game is so tight.”
It was a different game in the second half, I thought the Lions were better and thanks to Owen Farrell’s boot, we managed to stay in the game. Jerome Kaino’s yellow card didn’t help the All Blacks but the Lions kept it cool and played some decent rugby. It was a game that could’ve gone either way, the last five minutes must’ve seemed like an eternity because no one wants to be that player that makes a mistake when the game is so tight. The Lions managed to pull it back to 15-15 and they would have been looking to hold out but straight from the kick-off I felt like the Lions got a little bit lucky. Ken Owens touched the ball in what looked like an offside position but it was deemed to be an accidental offside and the scrum was awarded instead of a penalty. If this was a penalty, which it probably should have been, then Beauden Barrett kicks the three points and the All Blacks win the game.
It was one of the weirdest endings to a game I’ve ever witnessed. The magnitude of the game and knowing that it would be 12 long years before we will see this settled, meant that there was a little bit of disappointment for the players and fans. Surely there should be something put into place if there is a draw, perhaps extra time. The players and fans looked hard done by after the game, almost as to say, “what now?”. I think a few players thought there was extra time and then realised that this was not the case and that the series had ended in a draw. To put in all that work over the 6-week period to then come out of it with a draw will be a tough pill to swallow for both sides. It was clear to see the disappointment by looking at both captains faces when they awkwardly lifted the trophy together. Me personally, I think that in the future there has to be some sort of decider whether it be extra time or points difference.
“The players will cherish this experience for as long as they live…”
Having said that, not many people gave the Lions a chance against the World Champions but the Lions got through some tough games and still had enough to draw the series which they can be extremely proud of. To be 1-0 down to the All Blacks in New Zealand and come back to draw the series, that is an incredible achievement in itself and they deserve a lot of credit. I’m sure they would have loved to have won it but to end the series with a tie, the Lions can almost take this as a win with it being on foreign soil. The players will cherish this experience for as long as they live, it’s a unique setting where you are forced to spend time with guys that you would normally be playing against. Guys that usually avoid each other come out being best of friends, which makes the Lions a very special tour. A lot of players will have grown from this experienced and would have learnt a lot from each other. New Zealand is a very intense place to go and play but with the support and the fans behind them, this would have been a once in a lifetime experience. Most teams have great support but the sea of red that follows the Lions is something that cannot be rivaled.
It was a successful tour and the coaches deserve credit for getting this team to gel in such a short amount of time. There were also some standout performances throughout the tour too, Ben Te’o was one of the most consistent performers until he was dropped for the second Test and will be going back to the England squad pushing for that starting spot. Faletau was as good as we have ever seen him, carrying and defending like a man possessed. Maro itoje got better throughout the tour and played his heart out, this will be a massive experience for him as a young player. Finally, Jonathan Davies, he was fantastic! I didn’t rate his form going into the Lions but he proved me wrong and deserves full credit for getting the ‘player of the series’. So, all in all, it was a successful tour for the players, the coaches and the fans and I think we will see the Lions tours continue long into the future. There’s been talk about players not being released for future tours or the tour being scrapped altogether but I think it’s a load of nonsense. The pinnacle of any home nation players career is to play for the Lions and to scrap it would be crazy. Maybe cutting a few midweek games will be the way forward, just to take a bit of pressure off the players and give them some down time but other than that, the Lions are strong and long may these tours continue.