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British & Irish Lions 2017: Lions take chances against 14-man All Blacks

The Lions celebrate beating the All Blacks

The Lions have won only one series in 11 tours of New Zealand

And so, just like in 1993 when the Lions visited New Zealand, the series is heading for a decider at Eden Park.

The tourists may have won the second Test at Westpac Stadium, and there may be a climatic decider to come, but the post-match debate must start by looking back at the actions of one All Black – Sonny Bill Williams.

Williams, the All Blacks’ star centre, chased up a kick and ran into contact midway through the first half, with his collision with Anthony Watson initially looking pretty innocuous.

The first clue that it was more serious was the reaction of the Lions players, with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray both protesting to referee Jerome Garces.

Then when the incident was replayed in slow motion, there was no doubt.

Sonny Bill Williams<!–

Williams’ 36th union Test start came to an early end after this challenge on Watson

Williams led with a shoulder into Watson’s unprotected face, not making any effort to wrap his arms around the Lions wing.

World Rugby has been clear on this. It changed the rules in January to make the head “a no-go area”, warning that any player making above-the-shoulder contact risks a red card.

It was undoubtedly “reckless” rather than “accidental” and, considering the force and Watson’s vulnerability, the red card was fully warranted.

I don’t think it was malicious, Williams does not seem the sort of player to attempt to hurt another.

But the laws don’t allow any wriggle room on those grounds.

World Rugby is trying to get the game to be as clean as possible and is asking the players to make smarter decisions rather than just throwing themselves into a collision in an uncontrolled way.

Garces took his time, consulted his assistants and reached the correct decision. It was undoubtedly a huge factor in the result.

At the top level, there have been a few examples of teams triumphing when down a man. Racing 92 beat Toulon in the 2016 Top 14 final after having Maxime Machenaud sent off in the first half. England did the same against Argentina in November after Elliot Daly had been shown red.

But it put the hosts at a huge disadvantage, with another 65 minutes to play.

Would the Lions have won against a full-strength All Blacks side? It’s impossible to say, a complete hypothetical.

And the Lions players won’t care a jot.

That is because if you ask any player in world rugby what sort of victory they would take over the All Blacks, especially in New Zealand, they will take it any way they can get it.

Lions thrown by Williams’ red

mako vunipola<!–

Mako Vunipola conceded a team-high four penalties and was sin-binned

The two teams’ reaction to the All Blacks going down to 14 men was markedly different.

New Zealand reacted quicker and more clearly to a curveball that neither Lions coach Warren Gatland nor All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen could have prepared for.

They threw down the gauntlet in the pack and backed themselves to contain the Lions, with Jerome Kaino withdrawn and only seven forwards on the pitch.

In the backs, they introduced Ngani Laumape, who was direct, forceful and recreated some of that go-forward that went off with Williams.

Back up to a full complement in the backline, they could deny the Lions the space the tourists wanted out wide as well.

What will frustrate Gatland is that the Lions could not get any control of the game after the red card.

There were too many errors and too much indiscipline, with the Lions leaking costly penalties under little pressure.

You can understand a player giving away a penalty because they think doing so is the lesser of two evils and not infringing might allow the other team to score a try.

But these were needless penalties to give the All Blacks a hold of the scoreboard.

Ngani Laumape<!–

Ngani Laumape is the joint-top try scorer in Super Rugby this season, touching down 14 times for the Hurricanes

It was level when Williams was sent off after 25 minutes, but after an hour the All Blacks had ground out a 18-9 lead.

The most high-profile offender during this period was prop Mako Vunipola.

He gave away a penalty with an clumsy charge into Beauden Barrett and, just a few minutes later, earned a yellow card for an unnecessary clear-out on the prone Kiwi fly-half.

Add in his occasional wobbles at scrum time against Owen Franks and it won’t be a performance he looks back on with any pride.

Given the England man’s skills in the loose, it would go against the way that the Lions want to play to drop Vunipola. But people have been left out for less in other teams.

He won’t be feeling that certain of a third Test start.

Sexton-Farrell axis provides moments that matter

The big talking point before kick-off was Gatland’s selection of Owen Farrell at 12 to provide a second playmaking option alongside Johnny Sexton at fly-half.

Ultimately, on balance, that selection was justified.

Farrell and Sexton do not knock people back and the All Blacks made yardage down that 10-12 channel.

But that vulnerability is the price you pay for having the two best readers of the game on the pitch at the same time and sharpening the tourists’ attacking edge.

Their runaround play – combined with quick hands from Elliot Daly and Liam Williams – sprung Anthony Watson down the right wing before they cannily used the space created on the opposite side to put Taulupe Faletau in.

For Conor Murray’s score, it was a deft pop from Sexton to put Jamie George into space and a crafty clear-out of TJ Perenara from Farrell to open the way to the line for the scrum-half.

Would those chances have been created and then taken without them both on the pitch? It’s unlikely.

The Lions have an explosive back three, and Sexton and Farrell are the best equipped to ensure them a diet of fast, good ball.

Forwards front up

The first place that the Lions coaching staff wanted to see improvement on last weekend’s defeat was up front in the close quarters.

In the first Test, the tourists were knocked back too often.

This time the gain line was not continually breached by the All Blacks one-out runners. There were bigger hits by the Lions today, which made the breakdown more competitive.

Defence coach Andy Farrell called on his players to “man up” and no-one responded better to that than Sean O’Brien.

Maro Itoje<!–

Itoje’s name was chanted to the tune of Seven Nations Army by the Lions’ fans

The flanker carried with purpose, racking up a team-high nine, and tackled offensively, backed up by a more physical display by Sam Warburton and Faletau alongside him in the back row.

Maro Itoje was right there alongside them.

He dropped the ball on his first carry and gave away a couple of sloppy penalties, but added dynamism, making a huge contribution around the pitch.

Add in the fact that he took over the line-out calling duties from the dropped George Kruis and oversaw an 80% return from that set-piece on the Lions’ throw, and it was a near man-of-the-match performance.

Now the anticipation grows to see what next weekend will bring.

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