The British and Irish Lions’ 2017 tour of New Zealand ended with somewhat bittersweet emotions as the third and final test in Auckland ended in a 15-15 draw.
The result of this pulsating encounter meant the series was drawn 1-1, leaving both sides disappointed that they could not claim the overall victory as captains Kieran Read and Sam Warburton sheepishly lifted the trophy together.
It was Farrell’s late penalty, just as it was a week ago, that proved decisive as he levelled the scores up with just two minutes to play, but that was far from the end of the drama.
In what was billed as the big decider following the historic win for the Lions in the driving Wellington rain of Wellington seven days ago, Warren Gatland named an unchanged side for the series finale at Eden Park, sticking with the combination of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton.
The All Blacks had the first chance to take an early lead as Beauden Barrett dragged a third-minute penalty wide – a first let off and a real opportunity wasted by the fly-half.
Before long, though, a second let off came the tourists’ way as Barrett combined with his younger brother Jordie and winger Julian Savea but the latter’s handling error prevented a certain try.
As Maro Itoje started to stamp his authority on the game, the Lions made their first inroads into the New Zealand half, building pressure over on the right wing.
But as Farrell attempted the long pass over to the touchline, J Barrett intercepted well and set Ngani Laumape on his way for a lightning-quick counter-attack; this combination between the two first-time starters for the All Blacks would develop into a real thorn into the side of the British and Irish Lions.
As Laumape raced away, it was the raw speed of Anthony Watson and Jonathan Davies which crucially stopped the flying Kiwi in his tracks, as the majority of the 30 players struggled profusely in their attempts to keep up with the franticness of the counter attack in the same way we spectators tried to keep up with the tempo of the battle.
All of this had happened within the opening 13 minutes of rugby, but the first blood was drawn just two minutes later as the breakdown in front of the posts led to B Barrett kicking expertly wide to his full-back and brother.
J Barrett, equally as impressively, knocked the ball down for Laumape to go over as B Barrett added the extras once the TMO confirmed there was indeed no knock-on during the build-up.
Five minutes later, with 21 minutes on the clock, Farrell got the Lions on the scoreboard, as his close-range penalty bisected the posts with ease.
Incidentally, it was Farrell’s first notable success in the match following a missed tackle, a poor kick into touch and the passing error that set of the counter-attack; a turbulent start for the Lions number 12.
In reality, though, the All Blacks continued to dominate, squeezing the pressure on the Lions’ defensive line as the Hurricanes’ trio of Barrett, Barrett and Savea starred again, with only a knock-on able to stop the powerful winger after he seemingly brushed aside the tackles of Liam Williams and Owen Farrell.
However, despite their class and fluid attacks, the men in black were unable to get any more points on the board before a huge tackle by the sensational Davies on J Barrett, supplemented by Sam Warburton’s efficient turnover, provided Farrell with the chance to cut the hosts’ lead to a single point.
The Saracens fly-half, again playing at centre with Sexton in the number 10 jersey, made no mistake and the All Blacks well and truly had a contest on their hands.
With four minutes remaining before the break, New Zealand extended their lead in what was a classic case of role reversal. Again, Jordie Barrett and Laumape were heavily involved as Laumape brilliantly offloaded to Anton Lienert-Brown, who elegantly helped it on to the 20-year-old as he gleefully ran through and over the try line.
Once again, his older brother was unconvincing with the boot and pulled the relatively straightforward conversion attempt wide, as the hosts headed in at half-time 12-6 in front.
After a (quite literally) hit and miss first half, which included a selection of short restarts to try and put his side on the front foot, Beauden Barrett’s kick to resume proceedings at the beginning of the second half was the start of 40 minutes of high drama.
His poor short kick was picked up easily by the British and Irish Lions who attempted to make headway into the All Blacks’ half; but a foul by Kieran Read meant an early penalty just inside the Lions’ half.
Step forward Elliot Daly: the left-footed winger lined up an almighty kick which he struck perfectly, halving the deficit to just three points with virtually an entire half to play.
In an attempt to extend their lead, New Zealand started to turn the screw and almost made it count when a swift exchange of passes resulted in Jordie Barrett carrying the ball down the left flank but as he released the ball out wide to the man over, he passed forward and alleviated the mounting pressure on the Lions.
French referee Romain Poite, who had a relatively quiet first half, then had a big call on his hands; Welshman Alun Wyn Jones was crunched by the Kiwi pairing of Sam Whitelock and Jerome Kaino.
Following the advice of his TMO, Poite adjudged Kaino’s reckless tackle to warrant a yellow card and subsequently provided Gatland’s men with a ten-minute period with the extra player.
Courtney Lawes came on to replace Jones during his head injury assessment as Liam Williams was almost in but Poite brought it back for a forwards Lions pass; not the last time a promising attack from the tourists broke down with an avoidable error.
With Davies coming into his element once again, the All Blacks appeared rattled, if the All Blacks can indeed be rattled; this was epitomised by the actions of Brodie Retallick in the final minute of Kaino’s absence.
The forward tackled Lawes around the neck and was subsequently penalised with a penalty, again close to the halfway line, before a cheeky Liam Williams baited him into a little shove on the Lions’ full-back.
From the penalty, Farrell was again perfect in his execution; striking the ball magnificently after his trademark laser-like eyeing up of the task at hand. 12-12 with 20 minutes to play, as Kaino made his way back into the fray.
As Gatland and his New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen turned to their benches in an attempt to swing the match, and ultimately the series, in their respective sides’ favour, the British and Irish Lions began to build their own pressure in what was developing into a crucial period of the match.
Roared on by their faithful and vocal supporters, the Lions pressurised their hosts but, once again, a knock-on brought a productive spell to a rather familiar end for Warburton and co.
The latest in the series of small Lions errors spurred the Kiwis on; yet another threatening attack could only be stopped by the impressive Taulupe Faletau.
Temporarily at least.
A scrum soon followed and replacement Kyle Sinckler’s unfortunate slip was read as collapsing the scrum in the eyes of the French referee and Beauden Barrett sent the simplest of penalties sailing through the posts, restoring New Zealand’s three-point lead with 12 minutes remaining.
The Lions were still in it for sure, but weren’t helping themselves as Jamie George failed to keep two lineouts straight enough (his last involvement in the series as Ken Owens came on) and Williams made a couple of handling errors as they desperately sought a lifeline.
These errors, understandable given the extent of what was at stake, were intertwined with a further multitude of substitutions as the All Blacks mounted another phase of attacking play on the British and Irish.
But the Lions stood firm and were aided by a penalty awarded on their own 22m line, before a further penalty was won on halfway once again; step forward Mr. Farrell…
As the clock ticked into the 78th minute of the match, Farrell eyed up another long-distance kick at goal.
The Kiwi fans howled, the Lions fans watched nervously as Farrell stepped up; he struck it well and it just, just made it between the posts and above the crossbar!
Despite his poor start to the match, Farrell delivered when it really mattered most and evened the scores once again at 15-15 with two minutes left.
Surely that was it, surely?
Far from it; from the restart, Read challenged Williams to the high ball, with Williams spilling down to Owens in an offside position.
Poite awarded the penalty, a simple enough kick presenting the All Blacks with the chance to snatch victory and break British and Irish hearts.
Remaining professionally calm despite the heat of the situation, Warburton spoke with Poite and persuaded the referee to check with the TMO, and together the officials, after a long discussion, downgraded the punishment from a penalty to a scrum for an accidental offside.
It was exemplary captaincy from the Welshman, whose counterpart Read was visibly aggrieved, as both skippers were able to appreciate the magnitude of the spectacle their sides were producing.
The visitors were able to break away from the scrum but yet another knock-on, the story of their second half, cut one final chance of another historic victory short as the clock ticked over the 80:00 mark.
Jordie Barrett had one final flourish in the bottom corner towards the Lions try-line but the man-of-the-match was forced into touch by the Lions defence meaning the test, and the series, ended level.
On one hand, the Lions had fought valiantly and managed to salvage a draw at the very end. On the other, they had come so very close to beating the current world champions for only the second time in Lions’ history after the famous tour of 1971.
This feeling of mixed emotions was summarised perfectly by Will Greenwood. The former Lions centre said at Eden Park, “[This is] one of the weirdest atmospheres I’ve ever known in a stadium… no-one really knows what to do.”
Not wanting to appear ungrateful or too disheartened, players from both sides discussed their pride at their efforts over the series but the equilibrium between this pride and the disappointment of failing to be victorious was evidently vacant, such is the desire and competitiveness of the All Blacks and Lions.
“It’s all geared towards winning but I guess it’s better than losing,” stated Sam Warburton in his post-match interview. “We’ve come to the double world champs – to come here and not get beaten, we’ve got to take some credit for that.
“We had six to eight weeks to become the best team in the world.”
On the opposition side, Read, who was making his 100th cap for the All Blacks, explained his “hollow” feeling at not being able to claim victory but expressed his pride for his team’s performance as well as disappointment at Poite’s decision to overturn the penalty call in the closing moments.
Meanwhile 22-year-old Maro Itoje, the youngest player in the Lions squad, explained his disappointment at failing to come away victorious. “We came here with the hopes and intentions of winning; we didn’t quite do that.
Itoje impressed throughout the series, particularly today, as his ten carries and 100% tackle success helped to spur his side on in search of victory.
“New Zealand are a top team and we went toe-to-toe with them. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t what we wanted.”
Interestingly enough, there was certainly more than just a hint that most involved would have wanted a period of extra time to settle the series for good.
“I was ready to go for another ten minutes,” said Beauden Barrett, whilst Warburton felt similarly, even if his legs were cramping up, such is his passion for winning.
New Zealander Warren Gatland, in charge of a second Lions tour, has returned once again without losing a series [after victory in Australia in 2013] and was full of praise for his side, in particular kicker Owen Farrell whilst also wishing extra time could have been played.
“[We] always want to roll the dice, it’s all about winning! I don’t think we played that brilliantly tonight but the boys showed some real courage.
“[It was] a fair result in the end. No-one gave us a hope in hell coming out here at the start. The focus is now on Wales but we will see what happens.”
For those directly involved and for many fans both in New Zealand and back in Europe, the desire for extra time for an outright winner to be decided is completely understandable.
However, after three bruising, intense test matches, it seems almost appropriate that neither side ends this Lions series on the losing side.
Sky Sports anchor Alex Payne epitomised the thoughts of many of us with this perfect encapsulation of the battle and the war:
“At times it was like Joshua-Klitschko, at times it was a bit like Federer-Nadal but it finishes honours even. In a funny old way, it sort of adds to the romanticism of the whole thing. It is quintessentially rugby: the honour, the spirit and the respect we are seeing here. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful series.”
Bittersweet you may say, bittersweet indeed!