Friday, July 19, 2024

Decider should be a thriller

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Well done Steve Hansen for taking the All Blacks 24-21 loss to the British and Irish Lions at Wellington’s Cake Tin on the chin rather than moaning about the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams for a no-arms shoulder tackle on Anthony Watson.

Not that it would have done any good because Williams’ reckless action got what it deserved. Which ultimately left the All Blacks playing with 14 men against 15 for 45 minutes, after subtracting the 10 spent in the sin-bin by Mako Vunipolo for his hit on a prone Beauden Barrett.

With Ngani Laumape coming on to play second-five and pack down at scrum time after blindside flanker Jerome Kaino became Williams’ sacrificial lamb, the wonder of it was it took until the 77th minute for the Lions to hit the front with Owen Farrell’s fourth penalty success.

But having been held tryless by a team that scored two against them, it would have been churlish for the All Blacks to begrudge the tourists a victory, made sweeter in forcing their harshest critics to eat humble pie.

With six Englishmen, five Welshmen and four Irishmen in the starting 15, much maligned coach Warren Gatland deserved kudos for teaming Farrell outside clever first-five Jonathan Sexton in giving his backline more attacking options than they managed in the first Eden Park test.

Renowned as a champion tactical kicker, Sexton is a deceptive passer whose sweet timing puts hesitant defenders in two minds and offers space for sharp attackers like Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson.

Starting athletic young lock Maro Itoje was a masterstroke within a strong pack that also highlighted the special talents of Sean O’Brien, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong and Taulupe Faletau.

Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read and Codie Taylor were the pick of a relatively subdued All Blacks pack on a miserable wet night in which the home backs were outshone.

Having been outplayed by Conor Murray in Chicago and Wellington, Aaron Smith will seek to regain his top halfback ranking in Auckland this Saturday with a service that will reignite the brilliance of Barrett.

Keeping 15 men on the field with a disciplined performance would also enhance the All Blacks’ prospects against a side that has proved worthy of testing their mettle, if not entirely blameless in the foul play department.

While I abhor much of the criticism aimed at the Lions, I was disappointed Gatland should claim the hard but fair Jerome Kaino deliberately tried to injure Conor’s legs in the first test.

Had he wished, Hansen could have made a more legitimate case complaining about the latitude offered the Lions when infringing the offside laws to stop the All Blacks moving the ball wide.

Stung by the second test loss, the All Blacks will be determined to bounce back at fortress Eden Park where they have not been beaten for 23 years. But while New Zealand has tremendous depth, the absence of concussed superstars Ben Smith and Dane Coles has blunted the attack.

Thus with the tests deadlocked at 1-all, the stage is set for what should be a thriller finale as the Lions seek to gain their first win on NZ soil since 1971 when brilliant backs like Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson and JPR Williams graced our fields.

  • Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author

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