Predictably there was controversy right up to the end of the Lions test series
By Phil Rice
In the end there were no winners, or perhaps everyone was a winner after a memorable Test series.
The match ended with referee Romain Poite changing his mind on a penalty award to the All Blacks which would probably have won the series for them.
Although Beauden Barrett was less reliable from the kicking tee than his Lions counterpart, Owen Farrell, whose peerless kicking provided the Lions with a hard fought draw.
It was probably a fitting result for a series that swung back and forth throughout. The Lions would have been devastated had a last minute penalty robbed them of something tangible at the end of such a closely fought series.
They certainly played their part in a memorable three weeks that will go down in history as one of the most competitive and closely fought series. Farrell and Elliot Daly kicked superbly under the most immense pressure.
The All Blacks should have scored more points during a first 20 minute period of persistent onslaught on the Lion’s line. But dogged defence and organisation allied to Farrell’s accuracy kept the Lions in the contest.
The Lion’s front five gave as good as they got, at least up until Kyle Sinckler’s introduction for Tagdh Furlong, when the scrum started to wobble.
In fairness to the Harlequin prop he did get his act together eventually and finished the game strongly.
Furlong was the cornerstone of the Lion’s scrum and he received considerable plaudits for his efforts.
He is now probably the foremost tight-head prop in world rugby.
Ex-All Black skipper Sean Fitzpatrick said “Furlong was immense for the Lions throughout the series and made sure the scrum was rock solid.”
Jonathan Davies was deservedly voted player of the series by his teammates. His defence was superb, notably when chasing down Julien Savea to prevent a try at a crucial stage in the first half on Saturday.
Sean O’Brien can’t have been far behind Davies in the vote, his contribution was invaluable to the Lions both in attack and defence. His try in the first test will go down in folklore.
Unfortunately O’Brien departed the scene at half time on Saturday with a shoulder injury, something that has plagued the Leinster man in recent times.
His replacement CJ Stander had a fine second half, an opportunity to show his worth which he richly deserved.
The All Blacks clearly targeted Johnny Sexton for ‘special treatment’, especially early on when he received a number heavy hits, particularly from Jerome Kaino.
Sexton bravely played on after he twisted his ankle in the first half, eventually leaving the field in the 73rd minute, his heavily swollen ankle will be a concern for Leo Cullen.
The Leinster Coach has already lost the services of Robbie Henshaw for the first few months of the season.
There was some controversy over Alan Wyn Jones being allowed to return to the action after he appeared to lose consciousness after a big hit from Kaino, who was sin-binned for his action.
But Warren Gatland said: “He was fine, he passed the HIA, we made sure. We all know what a big issue it is, we put players safety and health first.”
The Lion’s doctor Eanna Falvey gave some insight into the procedure.
“All HIA management is a collaborative event now,” he said. “We’ve really raised the stakes on how we do this considerably. For all our games, one of our medical team sits in the coaches box as a ‘spotter’, he has a monitor to rewind play to identify head injuries.”
Players from both squads mixed in friendly camaraderie after the game, underlining the uniqueness of rugby, after both teams had battered each other for the previous three weeks.
The New Zealand public clearly have an appetite for the continuance of Lions tours. This series appears to have cemented the future for the Lions.
There had been some conjecture whether they were relevant in the professional game, where four nations collaborating together seemed a throw back to the amateur ethos.
However the huge contingent of supporters from the Northern Hemisphere who attended the matches demonstrated that there is a market for continuation of the four yearly tours.
The legendary Lion, Willie John McBride, said after Saturday’s game, “The concept is unique and it’s gone on for more than 100 years.
“It would be dreadful in the professional era if its ever messed around with.” And so say all of us.