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

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