British and Irish Lions and New Zealand serve up dramatic finale to epic series
"Wow," gasped New Zealand skipper Kieran Read to his opposite number Sam Warburton, three minutes before the end of the third and deciding Lions Test. "This is rugby…"
Beautiful, brutal, thrilling, maddening, it was. Exhausting, invigorating, partisan, bonding.
And then it came to an end, match locked at 15-15, series tied up the same, and suddenly no-one knew quite what it was.
No wild-eyed celebrations. No match-winning deed or hero. No-one quite sure what was meant to happen next.
As Read and Warburton came together again to be jointly awarded the trophy, each of them with a muddy paw on one curved silver handle, you wondered if they might just start pulling, wishbone-style, with the man left holding the bigger piece declared the victor.
- You don't get remembered for a moral victory - Dawson
- Late Farrell penalty snatches draw for Lions as series is tied 1-1
- Draw a bit of an anticlimax - Warburton
- Gatland's red nose response to the NZ media
This was the pot-boiler with the final page ripped out, the whodunnuit when nobody finds out who did.
Julian Savea was going to be the villain for dropping a straightforward try-scoring pass, then Beauden Barrett the star for making another for Ngani Laumape, then Barrett the fall-guy for missing a straight penalty and kickable conversion. Owen Farrell threw an intercepted pass to blow one fine chance and then landed a penalty from the back of beyond to snatch back another.
That was in the first half alone. In the tumultuous final 20 minutes, the teams shackled at 12 points apiece, Kyle Sinckler was penalised for taking down the scrum and looked suitably stricken as Barrett opened a little gap again. That appeared to be the decisive act, only for Farrell to keep his head when most around had lost theirs to pummel a penalty between the posts from almost 50 metres out.
It kept twisting. A penalty for the All Blacks in the Lions 22 from the restart, downgraded to a scrum by referee Romain Poite to howls from the stands and smiling disbelief from Read. A breakaway charge down the field from the Lions rearguard, a step and dash towards the corner from Jordie Barrett as the clock turned red.
And right there was what is truly was: a rugby match for the disciples to cherish for years, a sporting contest that spread the gospel to the unconverted. Everyone - players, coaches, the 50,000 squeezed into Eden Park, the millions squeaking on sofas back home - left wanting more.
Some draws are worth more than others. Some can feel like victory-lite, others a cruel larceny. The Lions have little experience of them, not sharing a series since 1955, and even then with two wins apiece in a four-match rubber.
You thought of the Ashes, the other great sporting series between a team from the British Isles and the Antipodes, and England's escape at Cardiff in 2009 before their fightback at the Gabba 18 months later.
In both cases the draw was snatched from the snout of defeat, but both set up a series to come rather than acted as its finale. You thought too of Lennox Lewis against Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden 1999, where the draw made no sense to anyone except an apologetic judge, but for all the protestations from Kiwi fans about Poite's late volte-face this was not a contest decided by the officials.
Read gave away more than he thought when he said afterwards that the referee's decision "… isn't why we lost the game."
The most pertinent single statistic to emerge from the rubble was that the Lions had only led for three of the 240 minutes that made up the series. To find parity in this final one having been carved open by the All Blacks' speed and vision repeatedly in the first half was close to miraculous; on another day they could have been 20 points down before the break.
In the past two Tests, decided by a cumulative total of just three points, Barrett left 14 eminently kickable points out on the turf. Of the last 58 occasions the All Blacks had led at Eden Park, they had gone on to win 57 of them. Not a single Lions player was born when the hosts last gave a winning advantage away.
You could look to the last Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, and a series blackwash so comprehensive that wise men wondered if the tour could really happen again. You could narrow your focus to five weeks ago, when the tourists arrived jet-lagged and heavy legged from a long, punishing season and were almost beaten by a scratch side of keen amateurs.
There will be regrets. To score only a solitary penalty when New Zealand were once again down to 14 men is small reward for such a golden opening, to toss away territory and possession in that period to a knock-on, forward pass and crooked line-out chastening indeed.
For much of Saturday's slugfest your mind went back to the decisive second Test against the world champion Springboks in 1997, when once again the home team kept scoring tries and the Lions kept in the game through cussedness up front and the unerring aim of their champion kicker.
For Neil Jenkins two decades ago read Farrell and Elliot Daly in this. That there was no repeat of the glorious denouement supplied in Durban by Jeremy Guscott will itch and scratch at some of these players for months; when you aim for Everest and come up just short of the summit, the miles you have climbed and the unparalleled view are a poor consolation.
They have come far, all the same: Warren Gatland, who has now won one series as Lions head coach and ended unbeaten from the toughest tour of all; Maro Itoje, a great talent made Lions totem; Jonathan Davies, playing every minute of every Test here just as he did four years ago; Sam Warburton, a captain who combines leadership with humility.
And they have done it all, once again, from disparate parts and across old enmities. In a modern world often focused on cold commercial gain and a narrow nationalism, they remain an idea apart and a reality to inspire.
Lewis and Holyfield could have their re-match nine months later. We will have to wait 12 years for the renewal of this particular rivalry, and even the 20-year-old Jordie Barrett might be struggling to still be going then.
But as you watched the two sides merge for a shared team photograph at the end, red shirts mixing with black, Englishmen with arms round Irishmen, a Welsh skipper congratulating a Welsh man of the match, a Scotsman ending as the tour's leading try scorer, then you did understand what it was all about, after all.
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