Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

victory that saved this tour – and the next

victory that saved this tour – and the next

Garces’ decision to send off Williams not only handed Gatland’s side the numerical advantage but also may have secured the Lions concept

Paul Radley

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 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. 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 Ti.

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

But 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 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 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, 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.

Top: Conor Murray scored one of two tries that ensured victory for the British & Irish Lions. Right: Referee Jerome Garces shows the red card to Sonny Bill Williams that proved to be a game-changer Reuters; Getty Images