2017 – Lions seal dramatic drawn series in New Zealand
Only once before – back in 1971 – had The British & Irish Lions emerged from a Tour to New Zealand without a Test series defeat, but that all changed in 2017.
Warren Gatland’s side proved every bit a match for the All Blacks, the two-time defending world champions, in a compelling three-match Test series that lived up to its billing and then some.
After defeat in the first Test at Eden Park, the Lions bounced back in Wellington – as they had done in 1993. They then returned to Auckland and drew the third and final Test.
That meant the Test series was squared for only the second time in Lions’ history, joining the fabled 1955 Tour to South Africa.
Alongside that dramatic Test series, a thrilling set of non-Test matches and a richly rewarding series of cultural events added up to a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Lions players, the support staff and the thousands who travelled to lend their support.
But to chart how the Lions matched the All Blacks, first we must go back to December 2016 when Gatland was asked to take on the position of Head Coach once again.
Having led the Lions to an historic series win in Australia in 2013 – the Lions’ first in 16 years – a return to his native New Zealand was an altogether different challenge.
Gatland embraced it, re-calling many of the same coaching group that did the job in 2013 but adding fresh voices to the mix as well.
Andy Farrell’s defence would only concede 16 tries across ten games, Rob Howley’s backs conjured some of the greatest tries the Lions have ever scored, while Steve Borthwick’s forward pack earned the respect of observers and opponents alike.
Upon arriving in New Zealand, the tone was set with a traditional Maori welcome and pōwhiri challenge at Auckland International Airport.
Demonstrating the unison already established amongst Gatland’s men, Welsh hooker and choirmaster Ken Owens leading led the squad’s response with their rendition of Calon Lan.
And the Lions were quick to establish even greater links with their hosts as they undertook a series of community visits in North Auckland following their first captain’s run.
The squad took time out of their busy schedule to visit seven schools, three hospitals and two retirement homes on their way to Whangarei ahead of the Tour’s opener.
In addition to receiving gifts and an exceptionally warm reception, the Lions answered questions from schoolchildren and met residents at a pair of retirement villages.
The Tour proper began against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians at Toll Stadium. As had been the case in many a previous Tour, the Lions were pushed all the way first time out by a committed opposition team but eventually emerged 13-7 victors.
From there the squad headed to Waitangi Treaty Grounds for their official welcome at the birthplace of New Zealand as a nation.
It was a spine-tingling day as, in glorious sunshine, more than 400 warriors, mainly Ngāpuhi, both male and female, received the Lions with a spectacular Pōwhiri.
During the welcome, the tourists received three challenges. The first, in front of ceremonial war canoe Ngātokimatawhaorua, was a private challenge for the Lions squad with the wero – or ceremonial spear – accepted by Tour Manager John Spencer.
“It was an absolutely fantastic ceremony and a wonderful welcome by the Maori people here,” said Spencer.
“It couldn’t have been a better day for it, and we have great respect for their traditions, for their culture, their language, their heritage – which started here of course, their haka and of course their harmonies.
“It has been an absolute privilege. This is not a ceremony that has been extended to very many people.
“We were determined to come here and show our respect and our friendship – two of the Lions core values.”
An incredible welcome for us at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) June 3, 2017
Following the first challenge, the Lions made their way to the crest of the hill on the Treaty Grounds and, with thousands of fans in attendance, faced down the second challenge.
This time it was Tour Captain Sam Warburton who received the ceremonial wero.
“We had quite a few Maori welcomes for the 2011 Rugby World Cup and Wales toured here last summer as well, but that was like nothing I have ever experienced before,” said the Wales flanker.
“It was brilliant, and the day and the setting made it even more special.
“Away from the field, that is probably one of the best experiences I have been able to have through rugby.”
The third and final challenge was in front of Te Whare Rūnanga, before the 41-man playing squad and backroom staff were granted entry for ceremonial speeches and further traditional Hongi greetings.
And the Lions choir, after hours of practice in training camp, delivered all four of their songs in fine style, with the Welsh hymn Calon Lan the real showstopper according to the skipper.
— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) June 4, 2017
“The choir delivered, we were good in there,” added Warburton.
“We have put a lot of practice in behind closed doors and it has been good fun from a bonding point of view and we have had a laugh.
“But the guys have also actually really bought into it and from the English, Irish and Scottish boys point of view, to learn Calon Lan is really impressive.
“The Welsh guys were thinking ‘Crikey, this is going to be difficult’, so to learn it and buy into it has shown how the lads have come together off the field.
“We must have had at least 10-15 choir practices and hopefully paid off in there.”
Next up was a first trip to Eden Park to take on the Blues of Auckland. In another hard-fought encounter, star backs Rieko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams powered the hosts to a famous win.
CJ Stander’s first-half try and the boot of Leigh Halfpenny had looked like they might be enough to hold off the Blues but in the end a classic Williams offload released a flying Ihaia West for a superb try and the Blues became the first-ever Kiwi Super Rugby franchise to defeat the Lions.
Next the Lions travelled to the South Island where the Crusaders of Christchurch lay in wait.
On arriving in the city, Tour Captain Warburton, Head Coach Gatland and Tour Manager Spencer were among a group of Lions representatives who paid their respects on behalf of the entire squad to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake by visiting the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial.
The group laid a wreath at the site which was created to remember the 185 who sadly lost their lives during the 6.3 magnitude earthquake which devastated the region in 2010 and 2011.
On the field, the Crusaders were expected to provide one of the bellwether challenges of the Tour.
Unbeaten all year and top of the table in Super Rugby – they would go on to claim the title in July – the Lions needed to produce their best at the AMI Stadium.
And they delivered it with one of the stand-out performances of the Tour, a statement of intent that gave the group much-needed momentum with the pack creating a platform for a 12-3 victory.
An unfortunate Tour-ending facial injury to Stuart Hogg and the use of Farrell and Jonathan Sexton as twin playmakers in the second half – a foreshadowing of things to come – were the other points of note.
Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium, also on the south island, was next up for the Lions to take on the Highlanders.
A pulsating encounter under the closed roof eventually went the hosts’ way, a late penalty from Marty Banks proving decisive. The Lions could take heart from the attacking potential shown as Warburton, Jonathan Joseph and Tommy Seymour all crossed for tries.
The following Saturday, a much-anticipated clash with the Maori All Blacks followed and once again, the pack was able to dominate proceedings and establish the platform for an eventual 32-10 success.
The return to Auckland for the first Test loomed but first, the Tour went to Hamilton to take on the Chiefs.
This time, the Lions backs took flight with Jack Nowell scoring two tries, the second of which was an instant classic, while Liam Williams and Elliot Daly put their hands up for Test selection with brilliant showings in the back three in a 34-6 win.
And so it was to Eden Park – where the All Blacks had not lost since 1994 – for the first Test of the series.
Peter O’Mahony was confirmed as the match-day captain while Daly, Williams and Anthony Watson were included in the back three in a surprise selection that would ultimately prove to be one of the defining tactical move of the series.
Williams conjured one of the Lions all-time great tries in the first half of a dramatic match– slaloming his way past three tacklers from his own 22 to release Jonathan Davies and Daly, who traded passes before Davies offloaded from the floor for Sean O’Brien to complete one of the great scores; an electrifying end to end move that stunned the home crowd and sent the Lions fan in attendance into delirium.
But that was as good as it got for the visitors – Rhys Webb’s late consolation notwithstanding – as the All Blacks capitalised on their chances to claim a 30-15 victory, with Rieko Ioane benefiting out wide and crossing for two breakaway scores.
The following day, a group from the Tour party paid their respects at Pukeahu National War Memorial. The Lions representatives signed the visitors book before being given a short tour of the Hall of Memories. Tour Captain Warburton laid a wreath while Lions Chairman Tom Grace, himself a tourist in 1974, read Binyon’s Ode To The Fallen.
The Tour continued apace. With New Zealand one ahead, many analysts were predicting a clean sweep, but the series momentum would shift dramatically over the course of a remarkable seven days that will live long in the memory of all who witnessed it.
First, the mid-week side played out a supercharged 31-31 draw with the Hurricanes. The defending Super Rugby champions’ backline was packed full of All Blacks with Jordie Barrett, Julian Savea and Ngani Laumape among those who would start the third and final Test.
But the Lions were clinical and tries from George North – whose Tour was ended by injury shortly after – and Tommy Seymour (2) looked liked they would be enough before the Canes’ late fightback earned a share of the spoils.
Gatland opted to bring in Tour captain Warburton in to lead the Test side for the key second Test while Farrell was shifted from 10 to 12 and partnered with Sexton at fly-half. Up front, the powerful Maro Itoje was also handed a starting berth.
After a high-octane start from both sides, Sonny Bill Willliams was red-carded by referee Jérôme Garcès approaching the half-hour mark for a no-arms tackle on Anthony Watson.
With conditions extremely difficult – high winds and lashing rain – the numerical advantage was not as influential as it might have been in dryer weather and Beauden Barrett kicked the All Blacks into an 18-9 lead.
With the hour mark approaching it looked like the game was up but Gatland’s men rolled up their sleeves and got to work, crafting two superb tries in the wet and slippery conditions.
First, Sexton and Farrell dovetailed superbly as Faletau barged over in the left corner. The Lions maintained the pressure and Murray skipped over from close range for a second soon after. Farrell converted the second and the scores were level at 21-21 with the clock now into the final ten minutes.
Not since 2003 had the All Blacks lost in the Westpac Stadium but the Lions had one last roar in them, Kyle Sinckler winning a penalty and Farrell holding his nerve once more to seal a dramatic comeback win.
The noise was deafening, and the Lions fans singing in the rain would have happily skipped all the way back to Auckland for the decider.
The series was alive.
The eyes of the rugby world turned to Eden Park for the decider and the city was at fever pitch for the final week of as Gatland named an unchanged 23.
Warburton would again lead out his troops while his compatriot and second row Alun Wyn Jones became the first man in the professional era to appear in nine Lions Tests in a row.
But the All Blacks – wounded by defeat in Wellington – got off to the better start. Tries from Laumape and Jordie Barrett – both on their first Test starts – opened up a 12-6 lead.
As the Lions fronted up in defence, slowly but surely the tables began to turn.
Farrell added to his two first-half penalties with a third while Daly smacked one over from inside his own half and as the game entered the final quarter, the scores were locked at 12-12.
Barrett then nudged the hosts back in front but after replacement Webb’s quick thinking earned a penalty on near enough halfway – Farrell was coolness personified as he did the rest and it was levelled up at 15-15 with three minutes to go.
A dramatic final minute saw referee Romain Poite opt for a scrum on the Lions’ 10-metre line having initially looked to award what might have been a match-winning penalty to the hosts.
Liam Williams then made an heroic tackle in the corner to shut off a final attack, and the final whistle was blown on a draw and a tied Test series.
A fitting finale to a topsy-turvy Tour and a slice of history for Gatland’s side, who became the first in 46 years and the second in history to return from New Zealand undefeated in the Test series.
The vocal travelling support, who had been growing in numbers throughout the Tour, played a major part in making the entire trip a huge success.
While the players became heroes on the pitch, Tour manager John Spencer paid tribute to those who had given them such incredible backing from the stands up and down the country.
He said: “The fans were absolutely fantastic, all 30,000 of them.
“We’ve had absolutely brilliant support from people from clubs in all four countries, small and large.
“It is what the whole concept and creed of the Lions is all about. It has been absolutely immense. This Tour has been so special for us all and I’m confident it will leave a legacy for future generations.”