AUCKLAND - New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions played out a 15-15 draw in the third test on Saturday, with a compelling three-test series ending in a bitter stalemate.
New Zealand won the first test 30-15, the Lions clinched the second 24-21 and Saturday’s finale at Eden Park was everything that had been expected — pulsing with incident — until the final deadlock left home fans in stunned silence.
Owen Farrell kicked a penalty in the 78th minute which drew the Lions level at 15-15. The match ended controversially when the All Blacks were awarded what might have been a series-winning penalty — only to see the decision overturned.
French referee Romain Poite first awarded the Lions the penalty which tied the scores when he judged All Blacks prop Wyatt Crockett had not attempted to roll away at a ruck. But Crockett had suffered a head injury in the preceding play and was unable to roll away, suggesting the penalty should not have been awarded.
The All Blacks were then awarded a penalty at the ensuing kickoff and flyhalf Beauden Barrett seemed likely to have the chance to kick, from 35 meters, a penalty which would decide the match and series. But Poite’s attention was drawn by the television match official to replays that suggested the offside might have been accidental.
The penalty was withdrawn, a scrum awarded and though the All Blacks attacked until the bitter end, and went close to scoring even after the final hooter had sounded, they were unable to wrest back a lead they had held for most of the match.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said it was his policy not to discuss referees but it was inevitable the final minutes of Saturday’s match would overshadow much that had happened in the test and series.
“It’s a tough game to ref,” Hansen said. “We all know what happened and we all know what should have happened.
“But at the end of the day it’s a game. As little kids we’re taught to take the good with the bad and we have to do that.”
Lions coach Warren Gatland said captain Sam Warburton had convinced Poite to look at replays and ultimately to change his penalty decision.
He said Warburton had “been quite smart and astute and been able to talk the referee from a penalty into an accidental offside.”
Gatland added: “We would have been devastated as a group if we had lost the game from that (decision).”
The game and series slipped through the All Blacks’ fingers, just as so many passes had done during the match, nullifying their attempts to play an attacking game.
For some time Saturday, New Zealand appeared to have reaped rewards for bold selections when rookies Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett scored tries which gave it a decisive early lead.
Laumape and Barrett were both picked to make their first test starts in one of the most high-stake tests the All Blacks have played in recent years, outside the World Cup finals they won in 2011 and 2015. Both rose magnificently to the occasion, scoring tries which contributed to a 12-6 halftime lead.
The Lions canceled out that advantage with three penalties to Farrell and one to Elliot Daly and were on terms, 12-12, after 59 minutes. Barrett nudged the All Blacks ahead again with a penalty in the 68th minute but Farrell’s answering penalty — mirroring the 78th minute goal which won the second test — forced the match into its final stalemate.
The All Blacks might have felt harshly treated by the referee but they had only themselves to blame. Their performance was beset by handling errors which drained their attacking game and opened the way to the Lions’ late revival.
The Lions have won only one test series in New Zealand and that was 46 years ago. Warren Gatland’s Lions came as close as any Lions team in the intervening five decades, playing an often ambitious and highly skilled brand of rugby, but they fell just short of the victory they needed to seal their place in rugby history.
The All Blacks felt only bitter disappointment. Stung by their second-test defeat, they produced a more controlled and aggressive performance in the first half, gaining ascendancy over the Lions scrum and at lineouts, bringing fresh vigor to the breakdown.
But they ultimately faltered and failed because of a lack of precision and a lack of discipline, losing flanker Jerome Kaino to a yellow card at a vital stage.
The match was still a great rugby occasion, eagerly awaited by fans from both sides and worthy of that anticipation. Eden Park was crammed to bursting by 50,000 fans with the red of Lions’ supporters at least as much in evidence as the New Zealand black.
The first chance for points fell to the All Blacks but Beauden Barrett, who missed three of 10 shot at goal in a second test decided by three points, was wide with his attempted penalty.
The All Blacks created several chances on attacking ball in the first quarter but final passes didn’t stick.
The Lions were pinned inside their half until the 12th minute when they launched a breakout off a lineout steal by Maro Itoje. They pressed within meters of the All Blacks line, then swung the ball wide but Barrett was lurking and claimed an intercept — caught from behind he passed to Laumape who, in turn, was run down by Jonathan Davies.
New Zealand stayed on attack and after committing the Lions forwards, Barrett kicked crossfield for his brother Jordie on the right wing, who batted the ball infield to Laumape, who scored.
Farrell brought the Lions back into the match with penalties in the 21st and 33rd minutes, while the tourists also had to fend off the threat of an All Blacks tighthead near their line.
Just as Jordie Barrett had a hand in Laumape’s first All Blacks try, Laumape had a hand in Barrett’s. He broke through the Lions’ midfield in the 36th minute, linked with his midfield partner Anton Lienert-Brown, who swung the ball wide for Barrett to score.
Winger Elliot Daly opened the second-half scoring with a long-range penalty for the Lions, which cut New Zealand’s lead to 12-9.
Kaino’s yellow card came in the 50th minute when his forearm made contact with the head of Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones in a tackle, though the referee agreed there was no intent or force in his action.