Mark Reason: Third test thriller between All Blacks and Lions a game played in heaven

Both teams peered into the void as the ferocity of the final test match between the All Blacks and the Lions shook the ground and our hearts. And yet still there were moments of skill to dazzle this dark corner of New Zealand.

Dark, because of all the black shirts in the stand. Dark, because of the fears that so many fans carried into this match. And so often games like this just cannot live up to the absurdity of the expectation. But this match – a 15-15 draw that saw the series shared 1-1 – will stand as one of the great tests in the history of the Lions in New Zealand.

NIGEL MARPLE/REUTERS
Maro Itoje was again outstanding in a brutal and brilliant test match.

Of course there were bundles of mistakes. It is almost impossible not to throw the odd bad pass when Brodie Retallick or Maro Itoje is intent on crushing your skeleton until it squeaks. Both locks were colossal for their respective sides and are going to have many a great battle down the years.

And to begin with the intensity of the collisions was all too much and the jitters jumped between the stands and the pitch. Beauden Barrett hooked his first kick at goal horribly and the bank of red behind the posts stood and cheered. Julian Savea dropped a pass that he could have caught as a 3-year-old.

Were they bothered? Well, probably, but they just got on with it and then played some footy from another world. Savea ran over the top of Liam Williams, and your mind went back to Jonah Lomu putting Mike Catt through the tumble dryer all those years ago in a World Cup semi in South Africa.

Beauden Barrett crucially intercepted Owen Farrell when the Lions were pressing for the early score. Farrell has not enhanced his reputation and his passing off his left hand was dreadful. He cost the Lions two possible tries with bad passes to his left. Big players play the big moments.

But the nerves just added to the thrill of it all. The All Blacks could have put the game away in the first half when their scrum monstered the Lions off the ball. Number eight pick up, five metres to go, accuracy was all that was needed. But Aaron Smith’s pass did not understand the line that Beauden Barrett was taking and the chance was fumbled.

At the start of the second half the All Blacks again caught a wind shift and had a chance to sail away. It was a joy to see them finally play some rugby and they had a lot of success with changes of direction and deeper runners. They also held the Lions defence with some early cross kicks.

So when Jordie Barrett spun towards the outside he had Savea in the clear and the series in his hands. But the Lions just squeezed him too hard and the 20-year-old could not keep his pass from going forwards. Sit down, everyone, it’s not a try but there’s so much more to come.

More to come from this game and more to come from young Jordie. In the first half he finished one try on the outside when Ngani Laumape made a half break and Anton Lienert-Brown showed the Lions how to pass. And he set up another when he used his height to tap down for Laumape to score.

New Zealand had their moments, and so many of them were beautiful, but the All Blacks can also been an ugly team at times when threatened. We saw that last week with SBW and we saw it again when Jerome Kaino hit Alun Wyn Davies in the jaw with a straight arm. The people in front of me spat out juices of abuse, but the officials were entirely correct to issue a yellow card.

And so the Lions came back into the game and there were so many impossible outcomes to decide. The man of the series? For me a dead heat between Conor Murray and Brodie Retallick. The next All Blacks coach? Warren Gatland won’t get the job, but he can be proud of how his teams have played on this tour.

But those things are for another day perhaps. This was a night when sport put a magnifying glass on the human spirit and showed just how magnificent it can be.

– Stuff

All Blacks and Lions end third test – and 2017 series – in a draw

We came to celebrate, but it ended in stalemate. Would you believe it? In the most controversial of circumstances, the All Blacks and British and Irish Lions could not be separated in a dramatic final, deciding test at Eden Park.

At the end of a pulsating encounter referee Romain Poite had the major say we all feared he might, but not in the manner we suspected.

After reviewing a decision to award a late, kickable penalty to the All Blacks with less than two minutes on the clock, he downgraded it to just a scrum for accidental offside, and the Lions were able to escape with a 15-15 draw that left this brilliant series, for the first time in history, tied.

On a night when these two fine sides could not be separated, the series also ends that way. In many ways, given the epic nature of the final encounter, it is a result that cannot be disputed.

Yet it will be. How could Poite change his decision when the video replay clearly showed replacement hooker Ken Owens had been in front of Liam Williams when he spilled the ball forward from the kickoff? But he did.

It was as if he decided he did not want this match to end on that note, after Lions superboot Owen Farrell had drilled his second 48-metre penalty to level the scores at 15-15 just moments earlier.

The All Blacks had a sniff in the final seconds, and rookie sensation Jordie Barrett went close in the right corner, but the Lions somehow held on.

What a third, and final, deciding test we had at this fortress of a ground for the All Blacks where they still haven’t lost since 1994 (though that 38-test win streak is now over). It was epic. It was tense. It was all things that rugby at this level should be. The sellout crowd of just shy of 50,000, forming a sea of red and black, were split seemingly equally in their vociferous support.

The Lions did not shrink beneath the glare of the big moment either. They could not manage a try. But they kicked their goals (five from five) and were good enough to deny the All Blacks the victory they worked so hard for.

So, Kieran Read’s 100th test ends not in the victory he deserved. Nor the 50th, and last, for Charlie Faumuina and Aaron Cruden.

And surprise starters Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape are denied the result their outstanding performances probably deserved.

The first 40 was all about tempo for the All Blacks, who did everything they could at pace, and with withering intent. Frustrated at their lack of ambition last week in Wellington, they weren’t going to die wondering in this deciding matchup.

So they went quickly at lineout time, from the ruck, and on any other occasion they could, and had the Lions in back-pedal mode through much of the opening half. The visitors had a couple of sniffs, but it was the New Zealanders who created the, er, lion’s share of the chances, and took a deserved 12-6 lead into the sheds with the only two tries of the half.

They were both sublime examples of how good these All Blacks are when they are able to play their game of pace, skill and withering execution.

That they both went to rookie starting debutants whom Hansen had taken (supposedly) such a risk in selecting really said it all about both the coach’s smarts and the natural ability he has at his disposal.

In fact, you couldn’t keep second five-eighths Laumape and fullback Jordie Barrett out of this test. They might not be rich in experience, but they are in talent and self-belief. Just a couple of minutes after a Beauden Barrett intercept just failed to put Laumape clear away, the Barrett-Laumape combination struck with magical efficacy. Under advantage, Beauden Barrett’s crosskick looked just a little over-cooked, but his 20-year-old brother soared high to tap the ball infield to Laumape who was across for the opening try, and a 7-0 lead.

Then four minutes from the break, with the Lions having eked the deficit back to just a point, the New Zealanders struck again with another sublimely executed attack. Brodie Retallick started it with the charge from the middle of the lineout, then Laumape rolled out a fabulous offload in the tackle to Anton Lienert-Brown whose pinpoint wide pass gave Jordie Barrett all the space he needed for the easiest of five-pointers.

The All Blacks could have had more, but crucial handling lapses at key moments denied them the chance to build a buffer.

But the Lions weren’t going anywhere after halftime. First Elliot Daly banged over a 54-metre penalty, then they went a man up for 10 minutes when Jerome Kaino was yellow carded for a forearm to the head of Alun Wyn Jones on the carry.

To the All Blacks’ credit they have some form playing with 14, and leaked only a 48m penalty to Own Farrell to level the scores at 12-12, which was right when Kaino returned to restore parity.

From there it was a tightrope walk to the finish. A penalty more apiece, and the night ended with neither team able to truly celebrate. But perhaps it was a night when rugby should, for two fine teams had played themselves into the ground, and simply could not be separated.

All Blacks 15 (Ngani Laumape, Jordie Barrett tries; Beauden Barrett pen, con), British & Irish Lions 15 (Owen Farrell 4 pens; Elliot Daly pen). Ht: 12-6.

– Stuff

Brodie Retallick says the All Blacks will be ready for what’s coming in the opening test against the Lions.

Forewarned is forearmed, reckon the All Blacks when it comes to that withering defensive line-speed of Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions. As Steve Hansen would say, they might just have more up their sleeves than their arms.

They know it’s coming all right in Saturday’s opening test of the series at Eden Park, and they have seen first-hand the way it can squeeze the life out of such quality opponents as the Crusaders and New Zealand Maori who have both been ground into the turf by Gatland’s full-strength, fast-off-the-mark weekend lineup.

Gatland’s shadow test squad has conceded just one try in 160 minutes of rugby on this tour, and pummelled both the Crusaders (12-3) and Maori (32-10) in the process. They may be struggling to find their attacking flow, but you simply cannot fault the manner in which they have defended through two impressive victories.

Clips from those two games will have been loaded en masse on to the All Blacks’ devices and will be compulsory viewing all week as they build up for the always pivotal opening encounter of this delicious three-test series that only rolls round every dozen years.

The brains trust of Hansen, Ian Foster and Wayne Smith will also be game-planning like mad, and the players expect to see so much of the defensive tactic on the training field all week, that by the time the test rolls round, receiving ball and defender all but simultaneously will be second nature.

That all said, two of the All Blacks’ big boppers admitted it’s a tactic the Lions use extremely well and is just different enough to anything else out there to be a shock to the system of the ill or under-prepared.

“They brought a real intensity, and we saw probably how they will play,” said Brodie Retallick of the Maori game. “It’s all about us this week and what we’re going to do to overcome their line-speed and attack.”

But the 26-year-old rated by many as the world’s best lock conceded there was enough newness to the Lions’ methods to warrant respect. “We don’t see it as intense as the Lions do it,” he said of a ‘D’ line with an Olympic sprinter’s speed out of the blocks.

“Some New Zealand Super Rugby sides are using it, and the Hurricanes do it really well. But it’s not something you face week in, week out. You’ll play Australian or South African team and if numbers are down they’ll hold and push instead of just flying up like the Lions do.

“I guess it’s a wee bit of perceived pressure because you’ve got someone coming fast at you. We will train that this week and get used to it, but it is slightly different to what we’re used to.”

That said, Retallick wasn’t exactly wiping beads of sweat off his brow when the subject came up at Monday’s media conference, on the back of a morning gym session and busy day of meetings to set the agenda for the week.

“We know it’s going to come, so acknowledging it’s going to happen is a starting point. And we’ve got certain skills or aspects we want to adapt to beat it. We’ll train it this week and put a plan in place where hopefully we can get outside it or in behind it.”

Veteran loose forward Jerome Kaino, who confirmed his readiness with a solid 57 minutes in Friday’s romp over Samoa, said it was a part of the Lions’ game that had to be prepared for.

“Whatever any team does, there’s always an opportunity [to find space elsewhere], but also it’s how you deal with their pressure,” said the 78-test No 6. “From what we’ve seen it’s been a strength of theirs and puts teams under a lot of pressure and makes them do things they don’t usually do.

“We’ll address that this week and train areas where we can attack it. But it’s awesome how they defend. The Lions just don’t miss their tackles when they get up there.”

The other perceived strength of the visitors is in that pack which is expected to be retained en masse from the Maori game. The All Blacks understand that if they can match, or even shade, them in the arm-wrestle, they’ll be a long way down the track to a 1-0 series lead.

“You always want to measure yourself against the best, and the way northern hemisphere teams have been playing the last couple of years in the forwards, they’ve set the standards. I want to measure myself against those guys,” said Kaino, a likely starter in the loose trio alongside skipper Kieran Read and openside Sam Cane.

Added Retallick: “We’ve got huge respect for what the Lions are and what they’re bringing. Their set piece is a real asset – their scrum and lineout maul. It’s going to be a battle there. They’ve got some big, ball-carrying loose forwards and we’re going to have to get in front of them and make tackles.”

Forewarned, forearmed and certainly fervent, this is a test that can’t come soon enough for these All Blacks.

source : Stuff

All Blacks bite back to secure Bledisloe glory 51 -20

Retribution indeed.

Moral of the story? Don’t make the All Blacks’ forwards angry. They will bite back.

Seven days is a long time in sport – an even longer time to stew on a poor performance. Very rarely do you see the All Blacks miss their lofty standards by such a margin as they did in the dour Sydney draw last week. Yes, the conditions were difficult. Yes, the referee had a shocker. In the end, they are excuses.

Tonight, instead, was an explosion of pent-up frustration, particularly from the bigger boys in black. They deserve the credit for locking away the treasured Bledisloe Cup for a 12th straight year. The backs sure couldn’t have recorded this 51-20 recoding breaking victory – the most points at home against the Wallabies – without them.

The big difference between Sydney and Auckland was the physical aggression of Steve Hansen’s forward pack. This week they did the dirty work.

They cleaned out rucks with vigour; they flew off the line and whacked those in green and gold jerseys with tag-team tackling. Dane Coles was a force with ball in hand; Brodie Retallick thundered into everything and Kieran Read was back to his usual prominence.

Collectively, as an eight-man unit, they rattled the Australians to lay an exemplary platform. They were ruthless.

By the 50th minute, when Read crashed over, the visitors were stuffed – the All Blacks’ brutal mix of fast-paced counter attack and crunching defence had grinded them into the turf. After that, it just seemed cruel. Almost like bullying at the school playground.

Not even Richie McCaw’s fair yellow card for cynically playing the ball on the ground could stop his men. The same could not be said for the Wallabies pack – sent backpedalling in the first scrum after Sam Carter was binned for infringing at the maul. Carter’s card proved much more costly, his side conceding (14 points) two tries – one a penalty try from a five metre scrum shunt – while he was off the park.

If it wasn’t already a proven fact, we can also now confirm there’s something undeniably special about Eden Park. The venue continues its fortress status – 20 years and 33 tests since the All Blacks last lost there. It’s going to take a damn good team to break that record.

Down 23-6 at half time, the Wallabies’ decision to stay on the field, rather than retreat to the changing rooms, in a bid to diminish the ground’s mystique looked laughable. Clearly changing hotels didn’t work either.

The 50,000 sell-out crowd were treated as the All Blacks ran in six tries. Many of those were orchestrated by Aaron Cruden.

After a sub-par performance in Sydney, Cruden’s game management was superb. On the back of a supremely dominant forward display he thrived with the time, space and freedom all playmakers desire. The short kicking options, delayed passing and running game – Cruden’s full range of skills were on display.

With Ben Smith chiming in frequently from the back, the All Blacks’ left-side attack was lethal, allowing Julian Savea to run rampant down his flank. Conrad Smith’s return to the backline – after missing last week with the birth of his first son – can also not be glossed over. There were some notably telling touches from the classy centre.

Filling Ma’a Nonu’s considerable shoes, Ryan Crotty can be pleased with his contribution before succumbing to a cheek bone injury at half time.

This was a crushing reality check for Ewen McKenzie’s men. They thought they had turned the corner. After arriving with the knowledge they blew a gift chance last week, they leave with their eight match unbeaten run well and truly quashed. They’ve got some work to do yet before their forward pack is not seen as having a soft underbelly.

McCaw and co. hold higher standards than the average team and they won’t be happy about letting in two soft tries to Israel Folau and Michael Hooper late in the second half. They can’t afford such slip ups against South Africa in the coming weeks.

But, for now, they will savour sipping from the Bledisloe.

SCOREBOARD

All Blacks 51 penalty try, Julian Savea, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw 2, Steven Luatua, Aaron Cruden pen 3, con 5, Aaron Smith con Wallabies 20 Israel Folau, Michael Hooper tries, Kurtley Beale pen 2, con 2 HT: 23-6.

– Stuff

 

All Blacks need a strong Springbok team to validate them.

My great friend Mike Greenaway has been fortunate to cover many of South Africa’s post-isolation Test matches in New Zealand and have learned beyond any shadow of doubt that the Kiwi rugby public loves nothing better than a strong Springbok team visiting their shores.

He recalls being in 2005 being in Dunedin for the match between John Smit’s defending Tri-Nations champion team and the All Blacks at Carisbrook, and at stake was the crown. The team that won that match would win the Tri-Nations.

It was a week of feverish excitement in Dunedin. The old rivalry had been revived and gripped the “Edinburgh of the South”, as the icy city is known because of its strong Scottish ancestry. On the morning of the match, the Otago Daily Times carried this headline across its back page: “Welcome back Boks – we have missed you”.

This was a reference to that dreadful period in the Springbok-All Blacks rivalry where the South Africans went missing in action. After having beaten the Kiwis in the third-place play-off at the 1999 Rugby World Cup in Cardiff, the Boks then lost eight in a row to the All Blacks, including the infamous 16-52 humiliation at the (former) fortress of South African rugby, Loftus Versfeld, in 2003.

South Africa won the Tri-Nations the next year in their first campaign under Jake White and Smit and, although they did not win in New Zealand, there was a sound drought-breaking triumph at Ellis Park, and in the next match between the sides, the following year, the Boks were resounding winners at Newlands.

Which brought them to Dunedin for the return match and the Kiwis were indeed thrilled that there was again a genuine contest between their team and their old foe. There was a column by a veteran journalist who recalled how as a youth he had woken up in the early hours when the All Blacks were touring South Africa and with his dad had listened to the radio commentary that told of these monstrous Springboks that were dominating Test after Test, and he wondered at the time if they could ever be beaten.

Indeed, in the pre-isolation era, the Boks beat the All Blacks more often than they lost, although there was not too much in it. In 1992, before the isolation-breaking Test between the countries at Ellis Park, the Boks were up 20-17 in Tests between the countries.

Sadly, that positive record was quickly overturned in the professional era. The All Blacks had moved up to another level following the Boks’ isolation following that tremendous series between the teams in 1981, which should have ended in a drawn rubber had it not been for the shameless interfering of Welsh referee Clive Norling – who to this day knows better than to set foot in South Africa – in the infamous “flour bomb” Test at Eden Park.

The All Blacks won that Test with a late penalty by fullback Alan Hewson after a penalty contrived by Norling. Incidentally, that 2005 Test in Dunedin lived up to expectation and the All Blacks won that match (and the Tri-Nations) with a late try by hooker Keven Mealamu.

In general, though, the Boks have been inconsistent against the All Blacks post their 1995 Rugby World Cup final triumph. In 40 matches since 1996, the All Blacks have won 28 and the Boks just 12, with only three wins on New Zealand soil in 17 years of annual visits.

That is why New Zealand gets so excited when a strong Springbok team visits, as is the case this week. The reports out of New Zealand clearly indicate that the country is once more seized with rugby fever.

The reason is because the All Blacks need a strong Springbok team to validate them. They routinely beat everybody, give or take France occasionally upsetting them in World Cups and the Wallabies once in a while providing a Bledisloe Cup upset.

However, it is the Boks that still have that historic ability to render the All Blacks human when they are seemingly unbeatable. The Kiwis know it and they would rather have that competition than not.

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