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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Sonny Bill Williams red card and other key moments of Lions tour of New Zealand

The final result of the three-Test series between the All Blacks and the Lions hinged on a handful of seminal moments.

French referee Jerome Garces, right, shows a red card to All Blacks' inside centre Sonny Bill Williams, left, to send him from the field as captain Kieran Read watches during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions in Wellington on July 1. Brett Phibbs / AP Photo
French referee Jerome Garces, right, shows a red card to All Blacks' inside centre Sonny Bill Williams, left, to send him from the field as captain Kieran Read watches during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions in Wellington on July 1. Brett Phibbs / AP Photo

Most right-minded people thought the British & Irish Lions of 2017 were going to be blown away by the double World Cup-winning New Zealanders before the tour started. That was only logical.

The optimists among the tour party, though, claimed the series was always going to be decided by fine margins. How right they were. It finally ended in a stalemate. It reached that point via a handful of seminal moments.

1. The quick tap (First Test, Eden Park, New Zealand 30-15 Lions)

The salient memory of the first Test actually came from the side who were comfortably beaten.

Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, Elliot Daly and, finally, Sean O’Brien combined to score “The Try from the End of the World - Updated”.

And yet it mattered for little in the final count up, as the All Blacks extended their unbeaten run at Fortress Eden Park to 39 games

It was founded on the quick thinking of Aaron Smith, the scrum half, who set up the first try of the Test series for Codie Taylor when his quick tap penalty exposed some schoolboy naivete from the Lions.

2. The Geography Six (Final midweek match, Westpac Stadium, Hurricanes 31-31 Lions)

In many ways, Warren Gatland changed his spots on this tour.

He went away from the stereotyped “Warrenball” gameplan, by opting for two playmakers in Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, rather than the exquisite battering ram, Ben Te’o.

He excused Williams his defensive foibles, in lieu of his electric running skills.

And he backed down. That never happens. Gatland refused to field, for any significant length of time, the six players who were called into the squad as emergency cover from nearby in the midweek game against the Hurricanes.

It might have cost a number of players a shot at the Test XV, and might have been the biggest concession to public opinion of his coaching career.

3. The red card (Second Test, Westpac Stadium, New Zealand 21-24 Lions)

The pivotal moment of the series. At the point Jerome Garces waved his red card in front of Sonny Bill Williams, belief finally started to bleed through the players wearing red.

The All Black aura dropped just enough. They lost control, and the touring side only had to beat 14 men, with one of the world’s best players now evicted from the remainder of the series.

Only! Either the Lions made heavy weather of their task, or the All Blacks just carried on being their relentless selves, depending on which was you look at it.

The away team eventually got over the line, but only just.

4. The tackle in the air (Second Test, Westpac Stadium, New Zealand 21-24 Lions)

The Lions levelled the series via a Farrell penalty, after Charlie Faumuina was adjudged to have tackled in the air Kyle Sinckler, who was jumping to catch a poor pass.

This was not the only time in the three Tests matches a portentous decision fell the way of the touring side.

They might feel they were owed the odd marginal call, given the perceived injustices of the Nathan Grey elbow in 2001, the tip tackle on Brian O’Driscoll in 2005, and the gouge on Luke Fitzgerald in 2009. And it made for a mouthwatering decider, too.

5. The offside

Fine margins? With two minutes to go in the series, the teams were tied at one Test-all, and 15-all.

Then all of the following questions arose from a passage of play that lasted approximately 3.5 seconds from start to finish.

Is Kieran Read ahead of the kicker? Does Read take out Williams in the air? Does the ball actually go forward off Williams? Does Ken Owens touch the ball involuntarily? Is Sam Warburton right to appeal the original decision? Is Read right to appeal the revised decision?

Given there are shades of grey with answering many of those, it can perhaps be concluded that, a) the final outcome was probably just about fair, and, b) a referee’s lot is an impossible one.

Results:

First Test: New Zealand 30 British & Irish Lions 15

Second Test: New Zealand 21 British & Irish Lions 24

Third Test: New Zealand 15 British & Irish Lions 15