The most-anticipated test series of recent times has ended in controversy bordering on farce at a jam-packed Eden Park.
Having awarded the All Blacks a match- and series-winning penalty in the 78th minute, and repeating the call after a TMO review, referee Romain Poite bizarrely overturned his own decision, apparently after his assistant Jerome Garces intervened.
The All Blacks made three personnel and a positional change from Wellington. Ngani Laumape started in place of the suspended Sonny Bill Williams with Malakai Fekitoa recalled to the 23. There was also a recall for Julian Savea after Reiko Ioane fell ill. Waisake Naholo wasn’t considered after his recent concussion, Israel Dagg moving from fullback to wing and Jordie Barrett joining Laumape as a run-on debutant.
Kieran Read earned his 100th test cap in his 25th as captain, with Aaron Cruden and Charlie Faumuina each bringing up their 50th from the bench in their final test before heading overseas.
The Lions meanwhile named an unchanged 23, starting the same XV in consecutive Tests for the first time since 1993. Versatile back Jared Payne wasn’t in the selection mix, however, his tour ended by persistent migraines believed unrelated to the head knock he suffered in the Chiefs match on June 20.
New Zealand: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody. Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
British & Irish Lions: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Sam Warburton (c), 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola. Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 CJ Stander, Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 CJ Stander, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell.
Referee: Romain Poite (France), Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Jaco Peyper (South Africa), TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
A frenetic opening ten minutes saw the All Blacks doing most of the attacking. Beauden Barrett missed from in front after just two minutes then Julian Savea knocked on with the line open after five minutes. Another All Blacks raid ended with a great steal from Lions lock Maro Itoje, prop Mako Vunipola having stymied another shortly before.
When the Lions finally got some ball they held it for 13 phases and looked to be setting up an overlap on their right, but Jordie Barrett read the play, picking off an intercept and feeding Ngani Laumape who ran 80 metres before being brought down. Shortly afterwards Beauden Barrett kick-passed to his brother on the left touch line who did well to control the ball and bounce-pass it to Laumape who steamed over for the try which was converted for 7-0 after 15 minutes.
Owen Farrell got the Lions on the board with a penalty in the 20th minute, and closed the gap to 7-6 in the 32nd. In the intervening period the All Blacks made numerous handling errors that arguably cost them at least one if not two tries, many due to the swarming Lions defence but others that were just dropped cold.
With half time nearly up the All Blacks won a penalty lineout 40 metres out which was won by Brodie Retallick. In a neat set move centres Anton Lienert-Brown and Laumape combined to put Jordie Barrett over in the corner for an unconverted try.
Half time: All Blacks 12-6 Lions
Play had barely restarted when Lions wing Elliott Daley lined up a monster penalty from easily 50 metres out. It never looked like missing and suddenly the Lions, with only around 35% possession and territory in the first half, found themselves just three down and well in the match.
With 30 minutes remaining Jerome Kaino collected Alun Wyn Jones on the head with a swinging arm and was sin-binned, effectively killing off any momentum the All Blacks had left, the mounting error count (21 handling errors by match end) having already taken much of it away.
The Lions stuck to their guns, Farrell levelling the scores with 20 to go as Kaino returned from the bin. Beauden Barrett made it 15-12 from a scrum penalty, Farrell levelling up again from halfway before the match entered the twilight zone…
Lions fullback Liam Williams failed to control the restart, the ball being next played by another Lions player who was in an offside position. Poite immediately called penalty, then for a TMO review of the Williams fumble for potential foul play. Finding no evidence of foul play he repeated his penalty call. In the time it took him to walk back to where the captain’s were standing, however, he appeared to be persuaded by assistant referee Jerome Garces that the offside was accidental, and awarded a scrum, leaving All Blacks captain Kieran Read flabbergasted and the non-Lions supporters in the stands stunned.
Coming just a week after a highly technical penalty denied the All Blacks a famous, one-man-short draw, it was a bitter pill to swallow, and the fact that the All Blacks shouldn’t have needed a last-gasp penalty – having blown several tries on the night – will have been of little consolation.
A first-ever drawn series, then, making this the second-most successful Lions tour of New Zealand behind the victorious 1971 team (who also drew the final test, at Eden Park, but in far less controversial circumstances).
For New Zealand: Tries: Laumape, J Barrett. Con: B Barrett. Pen: B Barrett Yellow Card: Kaino
For British & Irish Lions: Pens: Farrell 4, Daly