If the Lions were playing for the future of these tours on Saturday night their victory is sweet indeed. Whatever happens at Eden Park this weekend, the tourists do not go home in disgrace. They outscored the All Blacks in the second test, not just on the scoreboard but in touchdowns. Two tries to none tells its own story. It seems a long time since any team stopped the All Blacks crossing its line. In Wellington it was the All Blacks living on penalties and the Lions moving the ball wide.
They did not just square the series, they matched the home team for pace, handling and flair. They showed the benefit of an intense month of rugby facing the best this country can offer. With the scalps of the Crusaders, the Chiefs, the Maori All Blacks and now a test under their belt, they deserve to have enjoyed a break in Queenstown. Today they get down to preparation for the final test and captain Sam Warburton has said he will not be celebrating until they have won the series.
It promises to be a fitting climax to a fascinating tactical campaign between the rival coaches. Before the first test Steve Hansen had made no secret of the style he expected from a Warren Gatland team. It would be hard and brutal, keeping play close to the rucks and mauls. Hansen prepared his team to meet that head on and penetrate close in rather than playing the expansive passing game the All Blacks had just displayed brilliantly against Samoa, which the Lions would have watched. The first test surprised them and the All Blacks won it well. The second was a different matter, with the Lions creating far more chances.
Off the field, Hansen and Gatland had been exchanging pointed observations on each other's tactics and Hansen was winning that joust too, until Gatland accused the All Blacks of foul play and we awarded him the clown nose previously pinned on the Wallabies' Michael Cheika. Unfair, said Hansen, and set about praising Gatland and his team, but a couple of incidents in the second test, when Beauden Barrett was hit off the ball, leave Gatland without firm ground for further complaint.
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British teams that cannot match the speed of the New Zealand game resort to slowing the game down in niggly, obstructive ways that are frustrating for the All Blacks. It is to the home team's credit that they have not let this distract them so far. However, when Sonny Bill Williams went into a tackle with his shoulder the referee was right to banish him for the rest of the match (now extended to a month's suspension). And the French referee was correct in awarding the decisive penalty. The player was not tackled "in the air" as he fielded a kick, he had jumped to take a pass, but it was right by the letter of the rugby laws.
It is always a pity when a test match is decided by such a ruling, but there can be no excuses. The All Blacks were capable of winning with a man down. They were winning this match until the final quarter. But who in New Zealand is not quietly glad the series has been squared? The stage is set for a feast of rugby at Eden Park. Weather permitting, and despite another northern referee on the whistle, the All Blacks will be out to win with a vengeance. But Gatland's Lions will not make it easy. They have won New Zealand's respect.