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We now have a contest





"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a contest!"

A catch phrase from an American sports commentator in ancient times, but totally applicable right now as this memorable Lions All Blacks series heads for a showdown at Eden Park.

The second test was an epic…not for any flowing, attacking rugby, but because it was a titanic struggle from start to finish, laced with tension and controversy, in conditions typical of this lousy wet winter we are experiencing in New Zealand.

The Lions deserved their win. They produced a tenacious, street smart performance and jumped on their chances.

You could argue that the planets lined up for them, with conditions that helped them break up the rhythm the All Blacks had generated at Eden Park, while they were presented with an absolute gift in the form of the Sonny Bill Williams red card after just 24 minutes.

He became the first All Black to be sent off since Colin Meads in 1967, an incredible statistic that owes something to good fortune….Andrew Hore getting away with decking Bradley Davies in Cardiff in 2012 is one example that springs to mind.

It was a red card, no doubt. Williams made direct contact with force to the head of Anthony Watson, end of story. It was a throwback to his rugby league days, when shoulder charges were not only allowed, but celebrated by bloodthirsty fans, but it has been outlawed in rugby for years and he’s had more than enough time to know better.

The only credit you can allow him is that he pleaded guilty, and contacted Watson to apologise, but he will find the New Zealand rugby public a lot less forgiving. He cost his team a test match, has robbed them of a key weapon for the decider, and cast doubt on his own future prospects.

The Lions, their fans, and their ravenous media will dispute that the card was the deciding factor in the test, as they must, but deep down they will know they should have won it with greater ease than they were capable.

In response, the All Blacks dragged Jerome Kaino off to allow new cap Ngani Laumape to fill the void in the midfield. A man down, the forwards battled away with tremendous courage and, consequently, when the Lions couldn’t cash in they too became undisciplined.

They conceded a rash of penalties early in the second half, four of them by Mako Vunipola, who appeared to lose his rag completely and was a bit lucky to receive only a yellow for his charge into a prone Beauden Barrett, one that also appeared to make shoulder contact to the head, with force.

It was in this 14 on 14 situation that the Lions scored their first try, when a disorganised All Black defence gave them enough space on the left to allow Taulupe Faletau to crash through the tackle of Izzy Dagg to score.

The second try was dripping with irony, Conor Murray scoring after Owen Farrell had dived through a ruck to take the ankles of TJ Perenara. In trying to free himself, Perenara lurched away to the left, leaving a gap that the brilliant Irishman claimed in a flash.

There is an irony in that Gatland had accused the All Blacks of that very tactic after the first test, claiming they were trying to deliberately injure his star halfback.

Perenara was not part of the ruck and a TMO review might have changed the call, but referee Jerome Garces ignored the complaints of Perenara and had already become reluctant to defer to TMO George

Garces was erratic and at times hard to understand but the two crucial decisions, the SBW red and the match deciding penalty against Charlie Faumuina at the end, were correct to the letter of the law. If there’s a fault in the latter instance, it’s the law itself, because it allows no room for common sense in the case of a player jumping into a tackle.

Gatland has boxed clever through this tour. He and his staff have come up with a defensive plan that has restricted the All Blacks to just three tries over two tests, and an attack that has generated enough try scoring chances to win 5 of their 9 games so far, and give themselves a chance at what they want above all else, a glorious series win.

He has kept up the pressure on the referees with a steady stream of barbs aimed at the All Blacks tactics, comments that have been lapped up by the British and to a lesser extent Irish media, creating the impression that only one team is bending the laws and it’s not his. Whether they have had any actual effect on the refs is debatable, but like any smart team, the Lions have been good at figuring out what they can and can’t get away with.

Even after the win Gatland was bemoaning decisions that did not go his way, playing both the victor and the aggrieved party at the same time. Steve Hansen this time, wisely, did not bite.

Gatland is doing what he can to win the series, and, on the side, promote his prospects as a future All Black coach, chances that would have been zero at the start of the tour, but may be slightly healthier if they win this weekend.

They will go to Eden Park with boosted confidence, refreshed after a few days R&R in Queenstown and at full strength after the all Australian judiciary accepted that a swinging arm by Sean O’Brien that caught Waisake Naholo on the face was accidental.

It’s the All Blacks who have a few problems to resolve.

Injuries and suspension have now taken four elite players out of the reckoning in Dane Coles, Ben Smith, SBW and their backline general Ryan Crotty.

The forwards will have been drained after battling for such a long time a man down, and there were rare signs of….not panic, but less than calm from their playmakers in the desperate final stages of the game, which is unusual and reflective of the intense pressure of this unique series.

The All Blacks got themselves into a winning position despite losing a man for three quarters of the game, but for once couldn’t finish.

It would be drawing too long a bow to say the refereeing cost them the game in Wellington, but even so there will be jitters amongst New Zealand fans about Romain Poite being in control of such a huge game.

I’m sure you will need no reminder that the last time he refereed at Eden Park he made a terrible decision that led ultimately to Bismarck du Plessis getting red carded, and its worrying to think that such a call could decide such a knife edged contest.

Eden Park is New Zealand's sacred ground. They have not lost a test there since 1994, but that is surely offset by the fantastic support the Lions get from their fans.

For all the rogue factors that could influence the outcome, I do believe that if the All Blacks can regenerate the forward power of the first test then they will win it, but there is enough uncertainty to make this one of the most anticipated games we have ever seen.

With all the attention on the test, I only saw patches of the four Super Rugby games at the weekend.

Enough to see Jan Serfontein carry on his outstanding form of the June series. A player who looked to have lost his way after his bright start, he looks healthy, confident and dangerous. He is still inclined to look for contact more than space, but such is his power that he can dominate the tackle, and is both finishing and creating chances.

With South Africa's three playoff teams having already being confirmed, those games were not of overriding importance, but the Bulls will feel a bit better about life, the Lions are now just two points behind the Crusaders for home advantage, and the Stormers generated momentum.

The big news is that it seems almost certain that the Cheetahs and Kings will play in the Pro 12 league. I did a piece for an Irish radio station on Saturday and it is being reported there as a done deal.

For starters South Africa should be congratulated on their initiative to resolve the Super Rugby issue, find a good compromise for those two teams, and put a toe into northern waters. It’s a far cry from what has gone on in Australia where it has been all about the blame game, stalling tactics and rampant uncertainty.

Does it start the process towards South Africa joining Europe on a permanent basis? I still can’t see how it would work given the different climates, but it has to be a possibility and its one that will be watched with great interest in this part of the world.

Australia seems to want a more Pacific or Trans Tasman based competition, but New Zealand Rugby definitely wants South Africa to stay and no, not just because of money. The traditional rivalry is still held with deep regard, and the challenges of playing in South Africa are seen as crucial to the preparing of our players for the test arena.


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