IF we’re to accept that this iteration of the All Blacks are as good a rugby team as there’s ever been, we have to consequently conclude that for the Lions to beat them 24-21 at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday is a colossal achievement.
Yes, yes, New Zealand were down to 14 men for 56 minutes of the game but given the way the game played out, that was hardly an issue. The All Blacks dominated the ball, had multiple chances to pull away yet ultimately, they lost 2-0 on the try count, and by three points on the scoreboard.
Before this game, the Lions will have realised that they needed to tweak their physicality levels to get anywhere close to the All Blacks. They did that and more.
But before considering the rest of the game, we have to examine one of the key incidents - Williams’ red card. If you were shocked by the juxtaposition of a red card being shown to a player in a black shirt, you weren’t alone. Sonny Bill Williams became the first All Black in 50 years to be shown a red card in a game and the first All Black to ever sent off in New Zealand. Ever.
In that regard, New Zealand were in uncharted territory. As it happens, their performance levels improved markedly post red card, having been notably sluggish in the face of the Lions physical onslaught up to that point. If anything, Williams’ cynical shot seemed like a bit of a receipt in the face of that upped Lions intensity. It badly backfired, and Garces had little reluctance in sending SBW off and, in doing so, made a little bit of reffing history.
New Zealand could have no complaints about the card, or shouldn’t at least. As high, dangerous, no arm shots go it was as blatant as it gets.
Yet the loss of a man barely phased the All Blacks.
They held onto the ball, pushed the Lions over multiple phases and squeezed penalty after penalty from a Lions side that was struggling to stay in touching distance.
In fact, were you to judge the game on territory and possession after the Williams incident, you’d swear it was the Lions that had been reduced to 14. The All Blacks held onto the ball extremely well and organised their defence in such a way that the Lions numerical advantage never really became apparent. New Zealand were excellent value for their 18-9 lead and looked like they would hold out as the Lions scrambled for coherence.
Yet with all the possession, New Zealand never really looked like scoring.
The Lions had tweaked their defensive alignment to put Warburton and O’Brien closer to the point of contact.
That gave both flankers a chance to make some decent hits close in and do a much better job of shutting down the New Zealand fringe game than last week.
The front five came back from their chastening experience last week and bossed the physical exchanges for most of the game.
Even with that, the All Blacks slowly stretched out their lead through defensive over exuberance.
I realise that’s a kind descriptor, but the eagerness of the Lions to get off the line and get into the All Blacks faces was a constant for the 80 minutes.
Yet on the All Blacks went, keeping the scoreboard ticking over as the Lions watched on in frustration. The frustration almost boiled over into game ruining self-sabotage when Mako Vunipola was lucky to only receive a yellow card for an arm strike at the ruck.
Luckily for the Lions, the All Black’s flyhalf Barrett left his kicking boots at home for some crucial kicks - leaving nine points go off the tee. His profligacy would be crucial.
In the last quarter, the Lions came alive. Roaring? Not really, but Murray, Sexton and Farrell began to click and with them, the Lions found the firepower to finally break down the All Black defence. Faletau and Murray crossed the whitewash but it would be Farrell who kick the winner.
The scale of the Lions victory should not go unremarked. For a scratch side - even one together seven weeks - to come beat the best team on the planet under any circumstance is a fantastic achievement.
All rugby logic dictated a 3-0 New Zealand whitewash on this tour - now it’s 1-1 with all to play for.
All of a sudden, unlikely as it may have been a few weeks ago, history beckons.