Saturday, 8 July.
‘It’s about having emotional control,’ Gats says. ‘You want to take it to the edge, but you don’t want to go over the top.’ In other words: fire in the soul, ice in the veins. Andy Farrell stands up and looks at us. ‘I believe today you’ll become the best team in the world,’ he says. Putting on the strapping like armour. I’ve done this hundreds of times in my career, and as I wind it tight now I have a sudden feeling.
This is my last game. I’ve never thought beyond the next 80 minutes, but this feels different. This is my last game. This is the last time I’ll ever do this. It’s every player’s dream to go out not just on their own terms but right at the top. The only other man to captain the Lions twice was Martin Johnson, and his last international was the 2003 World Cup Final. Not a bad way to go out. For my last game to be the series clincher against the All Blacks – well, that would be right up there. Eighty minutes of pain for glory that would last a lifetime. I pull the boys in. The red Lions jerseys seem to glow, lit by fires from within. ‘Let’s pass this jersey on to the next generation,’ I tell them. No one owns a Lions jersey. You just carry it for a few weeks, try to add to it and pass it on. It’s not the jersey you put on that matters; it’s the one you take off. Empty the tank, Gats said. We’ll take the shirt off for you at the end if need be. We go out into the corridor. All the midweek boys and the support staff are there, slapping our backs as we pass.
I pick up BIL, our Lions mascot. Out of the tunnel as if coming up for air. Liiiions! Liiiions! Liiiions! A depth and growl to the chants, knowing how close we are to history, knowing what an inestimable privilege it would be to say you were there when it happened. I drop BIL on the ground the moment my boots go over the whitewash. Take it in. Take it all in. This is the last time you’ll ever play. The All Blacks set themselves for the haka. I’m watching them, but for once I’m not thinking how much I hate it. I’m Open.
I’m thinking of everything that’s brought me here, all the hundreds and thousands of tiny things which have led to this moment: me, Sam Warburton, captaining the Lions at 1–1 against New Zealand. It’s fitting that my last game will be in a Lions shirt, because for me this has always been the ultimate. Geech put it very well once. ‘That badge represents four countries, but it also represents you. You should be carrying that badge for people who have put you in that position. It might be a schoolmaster, mother, father, brother, sister, wife, girlfriend. Whatever’s special to you, the people who have brought you to this place, that’s who you should be wearing it for. That’s who you should be playing for. Because in the end they’re the ones who matter. They matter to you. And if it matters to you, it will matter to all of us. And if it matters to us, we will win. Go out, enjoy it, but play for everything that’s in the badge. For you personally, for all of us collectively.’
The Lions get to half-time down 12-6 – frustrated but still in the game
Johnny (Sexton) speaks up in the changing-room. ‘The moment we have them on the rack, we let them off the hook. It’s there for the f***ing taking if we want it.’ Beauden Barrett’s kick-off to start the second half doesn’t go 10 metres; the kind of mistake a club player shouldn’t make, let alone the best 10 in the world. That’s pressure for you. Foxy (Jonathan Davies) takes it on and Kieran Read obstructs Liam (Williams). Our penalty, just inside our half. Kick to the 22 and work the lineout? ‘I’ll have a go,’ Elliot says. He’s got a monster kick on him, and in training he puts them over from this kind of distance for fun. But a 55-metre kick six points down in the biggest match of your life is a whole different ask to the practice pitch. He looks confident. And if a kicker’s confident, then trust him. Elliot doesn’t have an elaborate routine, take a particularly long run-up or seem to connect any harder than any other kicker, but bloody hell he gives this one a thump. It’s high enough and straight enough, and it gets over with a yard or two to spare. What a kick. What a start to the second half.
Another penalty landed by Owen Farrell brings the Lions level but there is unprecedented drama to come in the final minutes…
Not over yet. Beauden Barrett kicks off. Liam and Read jump for it. The ball comes off Liam to Ken (Owens), who’s right next to him and slightly in front. Instinctively, Ken catches the ball – he’s had a split second to react – and in the same movement he opens his hands and drops it, knowing that he’s offside. Too late. Romain Poite blows. Penalty to New Zealand. Penalty to New Zealand with two minutes left. I can’t believe it. This is just so textbook New Zealand it’s ridiculous: to win it right at the death after everything we’ve thrown at them, after we’ve been toe-to-toe for the best part of four hours and you can hardly fit a fag-paper between us.
The referees confer and to discuss whether the decision should be a penalty or a scrum
Kieran Read comes over to where I’m standing, next to Poite. We bump fists lightly, recognition that we’re both at the heart of something very special. ‘Wow,’ he says. ‘This is rugby.’
There’s about half a minute of Poite discussing things with the TMO before he comes over to Read and me. ‘We have a deal,’ he says. ‘We have a deal about the offside 16.’ It’s maybe not the best word to use, ‘deal’ – it implies some sort of agreement cooked up – but I think he means ‘decision’ and, in the heat of the moment speaking in a language that’s not his own, he picked slightly the wrong word. ‘He did not deliberately play the ball, OK? It was an accidental offside.’ Read’s not happy. ‘No, no, no.’ ‘It was an accidental offside,’ Poite repeats. ‘So scrum for black.’ ‘Romain,’ Read says. ‘Romain.’ But Poite’s made his mind up. I intertwine my fingers together so the boys can see. Scrum. Get in position and pack down before he can change his mind again. Just over a minute to hold them out.
The match finishes 15-15, an incredibly dramatic end to the series. As Lions and New Zealand players gather for a joint trophy presentation, the players process their emotions
I’m called back for the presentation. In 2013, I shared the trophy lift with Alun Wyn. Now I share it with Read. We take the trophy between us, each with one hand on one handle, and raise it together. I tug it towards me, playfully. He laughs and tugs it back, neither of us quite ready to quit fighting for it even now. I remember the vow I made to myself four years ago: to be here, as skipper, on the pitch, lifting this trophy, the one time my body didn’t give out on me. And it’s come true, sort of. It’s come true, except I never envisaged that Kieran Read would be on the other end of the trophy. Mind you, if you asked him, I bet he never thought that I’d be on the other side of any trophy he was holding, so it all evens out. ‘Would you have gone to extra-time?’ I ask him. ‘Absolutely.’ I wish we could have pulled rank. Perhaps at this level, with everyone out on their feet, it would have been dangerous to go another 20 minutes, so I’d have played a golden point: first team to score wins, simple as that. Try, penalty, drop goal, doesn’t matter. As a spectacle, a climax, that would have been unbelievable.
(Jerome) Kaino walks past us. ‘Shall we get the boys in?’ he asks. ‘All of us together?’ It’s a great idea. We call everyone in and get them to mix, so we’re not just sitting in our own teams but in among the opposition and vice versa. There’s Rhys with his arm around Dagg, Kaino with his hands on Toby’s shoulders, Ken with Ardie Savea, red and black mingling as one – a great image, an iconic image, of two teams that took each other from pillar to post and back again. Forty-six guys who gave everything, won nothing but came away with something special. They couldn’t separate us over three matches, and they can’t separate us now.
Open Side by Sam Warburton is published by HarperCollins. You can order your copy here.