Outstanding performance from the Munster scrum-half helps Lions set up series decider
By Phil Rice
Despite giving the All Blacks an 18-9 lead with 20 minutes to go through their indiscipline, the Lions somehow managed to scramble home in last Saturday’s second Test with a late pressure kick from the deadly accurate Owen Farrell.
The Lions gave away penalty after penalty and thankfully Beauden Barrett spurned three relatively easy kicks otherwise the series would have been dead in the water for the Lions.
After 25 minutes Sonny Bill Williams almost beheaded Anthony Watson and was quite rightly sent for an early bath. This gave the Lions an outstanding opportunity to extend the series to this Saturday’s third and final Test at Eden Park.
But they did their best to blow the chance with suicidal profligacy, giving away kickable penalties with abandon. Mako Vunipola was sent to the sin bin for the second of two needless penalties committed against Barrett.
With 20 minutes to go it seemed that the opportunity had passed, but an excellent passing movement ended with the otherwise quiet Toby Faletau crashing over in the corner.
This lifted the Lions and they suddenly grasped the initiative and after another sweeping attack Conor Murray sniped past the All Blacks defence for the crucial try.
Farrell (right) converted and five minutes later was coolness personified when slotting the winning penalty from 35 metres. Williams has had his disciplinary hearing and has been banned for four weeks.
Ryan Crotty is expected to return to the centre for this week’s game. Sean O’Brien was cited for a possible illegal hit on wing Waisake Noholo, but has been cleared and the claim has been dismissed.
Both Warren Gatland and forwards coach Graham Rowntree highlighted the fact that this week they will be emphasising the need for greater discipline and a reduction in the penalty count.
The Lions were the better team last Saturday but almost threw away the opportunity to win a match that was theirs for the taking.
Rowntree commented: “We have got to sort out our discipline because it is going to kill us. We can’t lose a Test series on the back of some stupid penalties. That would be unacceptable.”
Gatland warned of an All Blacks backlash. He said: “We know what New Zealand teams are like when they lose. We’re in for an almighty battle but we’ve got belief and confidence. Hopefully there’s one hell of a Test match next week.”
There are unlikely to be many changes to the Lions team as the midfield combination of Jonathan Sexton and Farrell worked out well in treacherous conditions. Murray’s service to his backline was outstanding given the conditions and his tackle count was immense.
Despite Aaron Smith’s excellent form, Murray has outperformed him during these two Tests. He has displayed a new level of maturity and is the fulcrum of the Lions’ game plan, and probably the key player in team.
O’Brien gave another outstanding performance and Rowntree was full of praise for the flanker. He said: “He’s the barometer of our energy and aggression in the game. His ball pressure, his tackling, his carrying – he’s been outstanding.”
The one alteration Gatland may be tempted to make to the line-up would be to give Jack McGrath a start at loose-head prop instead of Vunipola, who would be used as an impact substitute. Vunipola’s impetuous ‘hits’ on Barrett nearly cost the Lions victory on Saturday.
Ireland will remember the force of the All Blacks backlash after their win in Chicago last year. Two weeks later at the Aviva in Dublin, Ireland arguably played even better than in the States, but the All Blacks were ferocious in their quest for revenge.
Barrett was their kingpin on that occasion and despite his wayward kicking from the tee last weekend, he is sure to be a key figure for them in their fightback.