I said they were ready for the Wellington Test, wounded but ready. The commentary coming from the Lion’s camp all week was terse but impassioned and it sounded real.
There was something in the air that night – the more traditional and rather less hostile Haka, weather straight out of Ireland, a Lions team which seemed to be rolling dice everywhere and a red ocean of support which definitely was not there in 2005.
So what could go wrong after Sonny Bill Williams took a deserved red for a cheap head shot that rendered the All Blacks one short for most of the match when the scores were level. In the professional game at top International level there should be no way back.
Instead the Kiwis should have been 24-9 ahead after 65 minutes with the Lions apparently unwilling or unable to take advantage but instead indulging in a sporting death wish of conceding one penalty every three minutes on average.
There were definitely looks shared between their leaders that something had to change or it was all over, after Barrett had left the door open by missing yet another sitter to leave it at 18-9, if such a thing exists in the pressure cooker that was the Cake Tin. The backs suddenly showed why their combination approach was about to pay off. The Te’o experiment having been ditched – no complaint from me but I genuinely thought Gatland was fixated on him – Farrell and Sexton provided two consecutive pieces of creativity to make space out wide. Faletau turned up finally and scored a try even Read would have struggled to make, and Jamie George removed any lingering doubts about his position as the leading hooker in the Northern Hemisphere with a slicing run that led to Murray’s trademark score.
Even against 14 men, for the Lions to nail 15 points in the last 20 minutes was exceptional play under pressure when the whole tour depended on it. This also means that if the third Test is close coming into the last quarter, they will have a lot of confidence to close the game out even if the All Blacks are at full strength.
I don’t know why there is airtime questioning the sustainability of the Lions tours – they have never been in doubt and the Wellington heroics restated the case. Criticism of English clubs who wish to be compensated is also misplaced because they own and pay for these players and their welfare. What is needed is leadership from the game to emphasise the sport’s priorities. The British and Irish Lions are a unique expression of the game’s values of shared camaraderie and true performance against the professional odds. But the commercial pot needs to be shared with those who support the game day and day out.
Lastly, I suspect that Jerome Garcia has taken the mantle as the world’s best referee after a string of great performances in the referees jersey, this one being the latest. The next best may well be Roman Poite who takes charge this coming weekend. He is renowned for scrutinising the scrummage and if so it will favour the Kiwis who look stronger, but everywhere else the Lions will take heart at a man who knows their game so well.
Oh to be in Auckland this weekend – I cannot call the result but that is the beauty of what is ahead, and even the All Blacks will secretly relish that this is the decider. Quite simply, the whole of New Zealand and the Rugby world will be focusing on the match this coming week and it does not get any better.