So it comes down to this. All roads lead back to Auckland, and a seismic clash at Eden Park to decide the series. Having struggled to deal with the All Blacks physicality and speed at the breakdown in the first test, the British and Irish Lions responded in Wellington’s Westpac Stadium with the Lions forwards in particular taking the game to New Zealand, as Warren Gatland’s side secured a famous 24-21 victory over the world champions. Having led for most of the match despite Sonny Bill Williams’ early red card for a shoulder charge on Anthony Watson, the All Blacks surrendered an 18-9 lead as tries in the final quarter of the game from Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray consigned New Zealand to a first defeat on home soil in eight years.
An ugly affair
If the first test was an exciting, gripping encounter that had fans up and out of their seats, the second test may have proved safer viewing behind the sofa. An ill-disciplined match full of big hits and some ugly exchanges did much to set the tempo of what seemed a win-at-all-costs game for both sides. For the Lions it was clearly win-or-bust in the three-match series having lost in Auckland the previous week, while the All Blacks were desperate to avoid the pressure that would come with going back to Eden Park for a decider. Having been bullied up-front in the first test, the Lions pack ran out desperate to restore some pride with Alun Wyn-Jones and Mako Vunipola putting down an early marker with a shuddering tackle on Owen Franks. With the rain pouring down in Wellington, the conditions made for a fairly turgid first-half with more grunt than grace, as the slippery conditions made it difficult for the backs to play any sort of expansive rugby. With fly-halves Beauden Barrett and Owen Farrell having traded early penalties for their respective sides, a moment of madness from New Zealand centre Sonny Bill Williams swung the momentum of the match decidedly in the favour of the tourists. A reckless shoulder-charge by the All Blacks no.12 into the head of Lions wing Anthony Watson, left referee Jerome Garces no option but to send off the New Zealander leaving the hosts to play nearly an hour with 14 men. Ill discipline from both sides saw Barrett and Farrell knock over two more penalties each as the sides went into the break level at 9-9. With a one man advantage going into the second-half, many would have expected the Lions to take control of the match yet it was Steve Hansen’s side who took the ascendancy. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the All Blacks controlled possession, playing a smart territory-based game as they went looking for good field position. Having already gifted the hosts some cheap penalties in the first half the Lions continued to give away penalties as they desperately tried to get a grip on proceedings. With the clock approaching 60 minutes, Beauden Barrett knocked over his sixth penalty of the night to push the All Blacks ahead at 18-9 on the scoreboard. By now things had got worse for the Lions with Mako Vunipola having been yellow-carded for a late charge on Barrett at a ruck, and nine points down with twenty minutes to go and starved of ball the series seemed to be slipping away in the Wellington rain. However finally finding the holes in the opposition defence, the Lions ran in two tries with Taulupe Faletau and then Conor Murray crossing the whitewash. Another Barrett penalty in between the two scores however meant the game was tied 21-21 approaching the final ten minutes. With the Lions needing a win to keep their hopes of a series victory alive, the tourists surged forward looking to get their noses in front and were duly rewarded with yet another penalty as Charlie Faumuina was penalised for taking out Kyle Sinckler in the air. The ensuing penalty was comfortably dispatched by Owen Farrell and the Lions held out for a famous win.
Lions find killer instinct in attack
Whilst the Lions pack had struggled in the first test, most British and Irish supporters were pleased with the performances of the backs with Anthony Watson, Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies having looked particularly impressive at Eden Park. However whilst fans were happy with the effort shown by the backs and chances created in attack, a lack of finishing had undone the tourists in the first test with a number of chances left untaken. New Zealand may have run out comfortable winners at 30-15, but there was a feeling from Lions fans that an opportunity had been missed. Going into the second test it was clear that Warren Gatland and his coaches had perhaps felt the same when announcing that Jonny Sexton would replace Ben Te’o despite Te’o having enjoyed a solid game in midfield at Eden Park. With Farrell moving across to take the no.12 jersey left vacant by Te’o, Sexton took the fly-half berth as the Lions seemed to gamble on a Sexton-Farrell midfield combination having the ability to unlock the All Blacks defence and bring that bit more composure in attack. An hour in and it looked as if Gatland’s gamble had backfired with the wet conditions leaving scarce opportunities for Sexton and Farrell in attack. However in the space of ten second-half minutes the Lions team selection was vindicated with two well-taken tries. The first score came as quick ball from a line-out in Zew Zealand’s half saw Sexton and Farrell combine in midfield before eventually Anthony Watson was freed up in space on the wing to charge into the All Blacks 22. With the New Zealand defence stretched, more quick ball from the Lions saw the ball moved from one side of the pitch to the other where No.8 Taulupe Faletau was gleefully waiting to run through Israel Dagg and touch down in the corner for the first try of the match. Now with their tails up the tourists soon went looking for another score, and with more quick ball off a line-out in New Zealand’s half the chance was on. This time when fly-half Sexton received the ball just outside the opposition 22 he shaped to pass to midfield partner Farrell before firing a pass across the line to the onrushing Jamie George. With the New Zealand defence occupied by Farrell’s run and expecting the ball to go to the English fly-half, hooker George broke the gain-line at speed and carried the ball up to ten metres of the try-line before a quick snipe by scrum-half Conor Murray saw the Irishman stretch over for the crucial try that brought the Lions level on the scoreboard. With Farrell kicking the extras with the boot to secure victory, the Lions had shown a clinical edge in attack not seen the previous week as they took the two real try-scoring chances they created in the match, with Sexton and Farrell playing integral parts in both scores.
On to Auckland
So after two titanic test matches, the series goes back to Auckland for the decider. Despite the win in Wellington, the Lions will know they rode their luck last weekend with their discipline in particular almost proving costly. 13 penalties is far too many to concede against a side as strong as New Zealand and with Barrett missing three shots at goal, on another day the Lions would have lost that match. There was a much-improved performance amongst the pack with Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton starring, although whilst they matched the All Blacks for physicality and speed at the breakdown, they must clean up their act and cut out the penalties if they are to clinch the series in Auckland. In attack chances were taken and the introduction of Sexton to the backline brought more dexterity and variety, but the kicking game must be stronger with the Lions needing to get more territory and spend more time in the opposition’s half. Sonny Bill Williams’ red card also played into the tourists’ hands last week and the whole team will need to front up and be ready for an All Blacks backlash on Saturday. With his team selection for the second test being vindicated by that spirited comeback in Wellington, Lions coach Gatland has stuck with same 23 that pulled the series level last weekend. Mako Vunipola may be lucky to keep his place ahead of Jack McGrath following his yellow card last week and will need to improve in the scrum where he has frequently come off second best to All Blacks tight-head Owen Franks.
New Zealand coach Hansen has decided to shuffle his pack with Julian Savea replacing Rieko Iaone on the wing, whilst there are first test starts for Ngani Laumpape and Jordie Barrett who come in for Sonny Bill Williams and Waisake Naholo respectively and captain Kieran Read brings up his century of All Blacks test caps. Clearly rattled by defeat last week Hansen has decided to throw caution to the wind in handing 20-year-old Jordie Barrett a debut test start at full-back. Younger brother to All Blacks fly-half Beauden, the Hurricanes back has been the star performer in Super Rugby this season, is a hugely skilful attacker and has a big boot on him as well. With both Jordie Barrett and the midfield partnership of Laumape and Lienert-Brown inexperienced at test level, the Lions will look to target the full-back and centres early on in the hope that the occasion might get the better of them, but in Julian Savea New Zealand have recalled a highly experienced player with a devastating strike-rate so the Lions defence will have their hands full coping with the All Blacks attack. The tourists will be encouraged by the fact they became the first side to keep the world champions try-less in a test match since 2014, but this was against a New Zealand side playing with 14 men for nearly an hour of the match. The Lions have the momentum now, although you can expect better performances from both sides this week with both sides looking to clean up their discipline and the All Blacks looking to avenge a rare defeat. Despite all this, the bare facts are that the series is level and it is winner-takes-all in Auckland on Saturday.