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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Sending off Sonny Bill Williams a big call, and one that may have secured future of the British & Irish Lions

Jerome Garces brandished a red card to the New Zealand centre for a dangerous tackle on winger Anthony Watson. With the Lions making their numerical advantage count to square the series, the victory in Wellington may well have saved future tours from being cancelled.

Sonny Bill Williamns leaves the field after receiving a red card for the All Blacks during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions on Saturday. David Gray / Reuters
Sonny Bill Williamns leaves the field after receiving a red card for the All Blacks during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions on Saturday. David Gray / Reuters

Has Jerome Garces secured the future of the British & Irish Lions? By being big enough to send off Sonny Bill Williams - Sonny Bill Williams! - in New Zealand, the French referee might have helped future-proof a whole concept.

A bit much? Consider the view of a Lions great. “The biggest game in Lions history,” Scott Gibbs, a key player in the Lions series win in South Africa in 1997, said in the OSN Sports TV studio, as kick off loomed.

Because if the Lions lost, so the theory went, they might as well cancel the project. All future tours would be off, with English clubs pushing to safeguard their assets - namely, their players - against the strain of a long tour, once every four years, as part of an anachronistic team.

Drop the Lions from the fixture list? Imagine the hit to tourism in the host countries for a start. Let alone all those sporting memories that are made all the more indelible for the fact they only come along once every four years, or once every 12 from the home team’s point of view.

Like the latest one, the one where Garces walked across the Westpac Stadium turf with a small red card in his hand, and showed it to the game’s most recognisable player.

With Williams off, the Lions just about ground out a 24-21 win - despite doing their best to throw away this golden chance - and they all head back up to Auckland for next week’s decider.

All square, with one to play. How can rugby possibly want to be without tension like this?

This match made a lie of all manner of preconceptions. Accepted wisdom had it that the Lions had no chance. They did. That Warren Gatland had named a ludicrous starting XV. Turns out, there was a method to the coach’s madness. That the All Blacks are invincible. They are not.

And that no visiting team ever gets a decision when playing the All Blacks in New Zealand. Turns out, that is bunk, too.

The most luminous player in the sport was shown a red card, in a Test match played in New Zealand’s capital. It was just the third time an All Black has been sent off in a Test.

For a little perspective, it was the first time it had happened since Colin Meads went against Scotland in 1967. That is 50 years ago.

Meads had a statue unveiled in his home town last week. Whether the same will happen for Williams half a century from now remains to be seen. If he does, it will not be on the basis of his efforts at the Cake Tin against the Lions.

The punishment surely fitted the crime, coming as it did for a reckless shoulder barge straight on the head of Anthony Watson, the Lions wing.

Maybe old habits had resurfaced at just the wrong moment for Williams, but that offence even gets pinged as foul play in rugby league.

Even with one less player, the All Blacks are a fearsome proposition. The indisciplined Lions did not help themselves, either.

The selection of Maro Itoje for his first Lions start was much feted. During it, the supporters sung “Oh, Maro Itoje,” to the tune of that other soundtrack of unlikely success, “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,” (or, more accurately, Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes).

Yet Itoje’s persistent infringements nearly cost his side. He and Mako Vunipola gave away a succession of penalties, and it felt like they were throwing the match away with it.

The All Blacks required just the boot of Beauden Barrett for all 21 of their points. The fly-half left a lot more out there, too.

Vitally, the Lions managed two tries, though, through Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray, leaving the glory to Owen Farrell, who won the game with a penalty.

“The biggest kick of his young career so far,” Justin Marshall said on commentary, as Farrell lined up his shot at goal.

And a pretty big one for the future of the Lions, too, all things considered.

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