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Tuesday 25 July 2017

Lions have real shot at glory

Conor Murray drives over the line to score the Lions’ second try in Wellington on Saturday. Photo: REUTERS
Conor Murray drives over the line to score the Lions’ second try in Wellington on Saturday. Photo: REUTERS

Colin Meads - Sir Colin Meads to those in these parts - was the last All Black to be sent from the field in an international in New Zealand. And that was 50 years ago.

Now, controversial All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams, who divides the nation in terms of popularity, joins Meads and Cyril Brownlie (1927) in an exclusive enough All Black triumvirate.

Williams' mindless shoulder charge on Lions winger Anthony Watson ultimately cost his team the chance of wrapping up the series in two games, as most expected them to do.

As a game, it was mistake-ridden and pretty ugly but in the end, it provided a thrilling and timely Lions victory that keeps this series alive and kicking.

Dominated

In a game dominated by a red card, a yellow card, three uncharacteristic fluffs at goal by All Black out-half Beauden Barrett and a pedantic French referee who sucked the life out of it with his whistle, it was still the win that coach Warren Gatland desperately needed, but very nearly didn't get.

If the Lions could not beat the All Blacks with 14 men and in terrible conditions that suited them better, then they were never going to do it.

In the end, when replacement Lions prop Karl Snickler jubilantly jumped in the air after he had extracted the winning penalty, the Lions deservedly had their spoils.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen cannot complain. His team were held tryless for the first time in New Zealand in over 15 years and Hansen had to admit his side were beaten by the better team on the night.

If truth be told, the All Blacks never really looked like opening the Lions up but as Hansen correctly said in the post-match conference, "that was always going to prove difficult once SBW had gone".

A man down, Hansen had to make the crucial decision of playing one down in the backline, or one down in the forwards. Given the wet and windy conditions and the fact that the Lions were employing a kicking game, Hansen decided to take the power of All Black flanker Jerome Kaino off. Once he was gone, the Lions dominated the physical exchanges. The All Blacks were comprehensive enough winners in Auckland, where they dominated up front, but in Wellington there was an extra physicality in the Lions' approach.

Despite giving away some soft penalties throughout the second half, Gatland has plenty of positives to work on before next week.

Replacement

The All Blacks will have to find a suitable replacement for Williams, who has been hit with a four-week ban after his indiscretion, and possibly winger Waisake Nodoalo, who failed a return-to-play concussion protocol.

The All Blacks were poor enough in general, with only Barrett and at times debutant Hurricanes centre Ngani Laumape threatening.

In fact, when replacement Aaron Cruden came on, with Barrett again pushed out of position, the All Blacks lost their shape completely.

Why Hansen continues to drop his best player to 15 when he is needed most mystifies me.

The outstanding players all came from the winning side and included Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray (getting used to scoring crucial tries against the Blacks), out-half Johnny Sexton and the human dynamo that is Seán O'Brien.

Others to feature prominently were the youthful talents of rangy English second row Maro Itoje and Welsh No 8 Toby Faletau,

The pressure will now come on the Kiwis big time. The New Zealand media can be cruel in moments like these, and Gatland has a real chance of winning next Saturday. His Lions team has nothing to lose now.

They have avoided what most thought would be a certain series whitewash, and they have a realistic chance of being the first team since 1971 to win a Lions series in New Zealand. Of course, the All Blacks will come back stronger than before. But, as France proved in the World Cup final in 2011, put the All Blacks out of their comfort zone and they don't react too well.

Why? Because mentally they are not used to losing, not used to being questioned this side of the hemisphere.

The Lions now decamp to the picturesque town of Queenstown to enjoy a few days rest before they fly back to Auckland late in the week for a game that will always stay in their memories, win or lose.

Their training will be focused and relaxed, while that of the All Blacks will be frantic and pressured.

It looms as one of those games that may dictate the future of the Lions franchise.

A nation's pride against the future of the Lions . . . no pressure then.

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