The dust has settled, the smoke cleared and we’re now unpicking the thrilling and controversial - more on that later - 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 first of a two-part series, TRU identifies four standout – for good and bad – performances from the Lions’ 23 at Eden in this most unexpected culmination of the summer’s test series.
An eyebrow-raising (and even conspiratorial) inclusion for most Lions fans in Warren Gatland’s original 41-man squad, and then subsequently in Gatland’s selected XV for the first test, the Scarlets centre silenced all his doubters and critics for the third consecutive week with yet another standout performance en route to winning the Player of the Series honour.
Although he never had the opportunity to attack the wide channels with the same effectiveness as he had in the first test, Davies was a rock in the Lions’ midfield channels stymying many of the All Blacks’ attempts to move the ball through their backline. Davies epitomised the ‘two-way’ distinction offering efficiency and security both in attack and defence and produced a superb covering trackdown of Ngani Laumape who otherwise had a clear 50m run-in following a Jordie Barrett interception early in the game.
Hitherto a surprise and criticised selection at Outside Centre by Gatland, Davies’ third exceptional runout for the Lions vindicated his Wales coach’s pre-tour trust in his centre and his Player of the Series gong was ultimately well deserved.
Hotly-tipped by many to become a breakout star of the series, the Leinster prop ultimately played a far more understated role in a Lions’ pack that failed to consistently out-muscle their opposition. At 24 with only two seasons of international rugby under his belt, for Furlong to start and perform admirably in all three tests would’ve been enough to secure a distinction as a rising star of the international game.
However, in the third test Furlong finally got the best of his opposite number Joe Moody and produced a scintillating performance that indicates his elite game-changing ability at the highest level. Not only was he a driving force at the scrum, Furlong produced a herculean shift in the loose as one of the Lions’ few consistent go-forward carries and even secured an important turnover early in the second-half.
At only 22, Maro Itoje has already proven there is no level of professional rugby – domestic or international – that he cannot excel at. At the apex of international rugby against the best team in the world, Itoje retained his status as one of the most dynamic and game-breaking players in world rugby with his umpteenth consecutive workman-like outing.
Matched against arguably the best lock pairing in the world in Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, Itoje was a disruptive and troublesome lineout threat, consistently pressurising All Black hooker Codie Taylor’s lineouts and systematically slowing down the set-piece ball New Zealand thrive off. Furthermore, Itoje appeared to have learned the lessons from his over-zealous and frequently-penalised performance in the second test, moderating when to attack the breakdown and as a result securing two key turnovers. The Saracens lock also impressed with his diligence in helping to orchestrate choke tackles on the All Blacks’ ball-carriers as the game went on.
If there is one Lions player who will be pleased, nay, delighted by a draw in the final test it will be hooker Ken Owens whose most significant contribution to the series very nearly gifted the All Blacks a kickable penalty to win the series.
After Owen Farrell had slotted a penalty to tie the score at 15-15 with approximately two minutes left in the series, the short New Zealand restart was contested in the air by Kieran Read and Liam Williams, bounced forward off the latter and was instinctively caught by replacement hooker Ken Owens in an offside position. Owens immediately dropped the ball, play was blown dead and referee Romain Poite consulted the TMO to decide the appropriate course of action.
By the letter of the law, Owens’ infraction in catching the ball – even instinctively –should have resulted in a penalty for the All Blacks, which would have given Beauden Barrett the opportunity to kick a game-winning penalty. Fortunately for Owens, Poite bizarrely decreed the incident an accidental offside and only awarded the All Blacks an attacking scrum which ultimately ended with the ball in touch and the test and series finishing a draw.
It is hard not to be sympathetic with the All Blacks’ lament that they should have been awarded a penalty, although one can sympathise with Owens whose reaction in catching the loose ball was probably instinctive and not deliberate. Either way, Owens was offered a respite, the All Blacks drew and we had one of the most entertaining conclusions to a Lions test since, well maybe 1955.