The dust has settled, the smoke cleared and we’re now unpicking the thrilling and controversial conclusion to the 2017 British and Lions tour of New Zealand which saw the two sides play out the best-of-three series to an overall draw.
For those in need of a recap; a dominant All Black performance in the first test in Auckland saw New Zealand triumph 30-15 and take a 1-0 series lead. Then, miserable conditions in Wellington and a Sonny Bill Williams red card in the 24th minute allowed the Lions to snatch a 24-21 victory and tie the series at 1 apiece. The stage was set for a winner-takes-all clash back in Auckland on Saturday. However, an on-the-night scoreline of fifteen points apiece courtesy of a 76th minute Owen Farrell penalty brought the month-long series to a somewhat anticlimactic finish; the post-match ‘celebrations’ consisted of a bizarre trophy presentation to both All Blacks captain Kieran Read and his Lions’ counterpart Sam Warbuton as fans of both sides reconciled themselves with a Lions’ series finishing in a draw for the first time since 1955 in South Africa.
As the undisputed best team in the world, there is little doubt New Zealand will feel aggrieved at the overall result having gone into the series as clear favourites. The post-tour review for the Lions meanwhile will be far sunnier with the composite side having exceeded expectations in battling the All Blacks to a draw in their own backyard. Regardless of how each team will look back on the tour however, in the second of a two-part series (you can find the first part here)[LH1] , TRU identifies four standout – for good and bad – performances from the All Blacks at Eden Park in this most unexpected culmination of the summer’s test series.
The reigning World Rugby Player of the Year is not infallible. Whilst clearly in a tier of elite players inaccessible to most, Barrett’s third test – his 52nd in an All Blacks jersey – was marked by dizzying highs and grounding lows.
His cross-field kick to brother Jordie was inch-perfect and facilitated New Zealand’s opening try, whilst his superb handling, passing and willingness to hit the line himself kept the Lions’ midfield defence guessing all game. All three came together superbly for the All Blacks’ second try with Beauden creating the line for Ngani Laumape to smash through and off-load to Anton Lienert-Brown who in turn found Jordie clear for the line.
Conversely however, the middle Barrett (older brother Scott was on the bench) will be left rueing the five points he left on the kicking tee, horribly shanking a long-distance-but-straight penalty in the game’s opening minute and later missing the conversion of his brother’s try. Overall B.Barrett’s series performance has re-affirmed his status as one of the game’s unique and mercurial players, but one does wonder if New Zealand would have (comfortably) won the series had they had someone kicking sticks at a clip higher than 70%.
The surprise-yet-seemingly-inevitable promotion of 20-year-old Jordie Barrett to the New Zealand senior team for this year’s Lions tour meant the Barrett stable added yet another family member to its cadre of international rugby players, alongside aforementioned brothers Scott and Beauden.
And in the utmost show of faith in the youngest Barrett sibling, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made the shock decision to have Jordie start at fullback in the deciding test, despite the former only having 18 minutes of senior international rugby to his name, having been a second-half replacement in New Zealand’s warm up test against Samoa.
In perhaps the least surprising consequence of Jordie’s meteoric ascension – Barrett junior, jr. proved to be a natural at the test level. Quick and instinctive with ball-in-hand, Jordie offered a near mirror image of Beauden’s game with intelligent kicking, running and dogged defensive duties from the fullback position. His salmon-like leap to knock-down Beauden’s cross-field kick offered centre Laumape the easiest of touchdowns with Jordie later the grateful beneficiary of his Hurricanes team-mate’s powerful midfield run and off-load.
Admittedly the sample size is still small, but the All Blacks look to have another potential superstar on their hands.
It is a fair assumption to make that without Sonny Bill Williams’ red card in the second test forcing them to play with 14 men for 56 minutes, the All Blacks probably win the second test and the series overall. Whilst we cannot attribute the same impact on Jerome Kaino’s yellow card for an unfortunate but clumsy swinging arm to Alun Wyn Jones, it did mark the apex of a disappointing series for the back-row stalwart.
Kaino’s 10-minute self-reflection ultimately only resulted in a three-point swing for the Lions, a points haul that did not significantly damage New Zealand’s chances of winning the final test. However for the 70 minutes Kaino was on the field, the Blues’ usually-dominant presence found his impact on the game severly diminished by the Lions’ abrasive back-row.
Kaino was held to a paltry 9 metres on 7 carries and he failed to make a dent in the Lions’ control of the breakdown – the solitary area the Northern Hemisphere tourists held a key advantage all series.
The drawn test can hardly be attributed to Kaino’s conspicuous performance alone but on an important evening in Auckland, one of the country’s most illustrious players failed to produce the level of performance his career has been built upon to date.
In a revealing post-match interview following the completion of his 100th test cap for his country, New Zealand captain Kieran Read remarked how he’d “trade them all away for a win tonight.”
On a night in which his team were cruelly denied a potential game-winning penalty kick following Ken Owens’ allegedly accidental offside, Read re-affirmed his upstanding character and value as the national team captain, speaking eloquently about his team’s performance and lamenting the fact the All Blacks hadn’t won the game earlier in other parts of the field.
Read’s individual performance on the night, akin to the first and second tests, was far from the barnstorming best he has produced in his centennial career; eight carries for 21 metres didn’t provide the All Blacks with the go-forward they needed in the back-row and the captain’s influence was diminished elsewhere in a scrappy game that never left either side get into a higher gear.
However elsewhere, Read’s poise, decision-making and tactical awareness allowed New Zealand to hold a lead for 56 of the 90-minute game and his industriousness in defence was that of a true leader-by-example.
Most impressive however were his post-match comments. He and the rest of New Zealand can feel aggrieved about how the series’ final two minutes played out, but his calmness and forth righteousness in addressing the media following the game, his respect for the opposition and a tone that indicated his disappointment without ever bordering on finger-pointing or an outburst of anger was an exemplary instance of leadership that should serve as a model for the rest of the rugby world.