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Everyone feeling weird but that was a wonderful Lions series

Warren Gatland’s men will leave New Zealand feeling that they achieved success.

Lions' Owen Farrell poses for a picture with fans after the game.
Lions' Owen Farrell poses for a picture with fans after the game.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Murray Kinsella reports from New Zealand

THIS WAS THE series that had it all: sensational scores, thunderous hits, a red card, yellows, a set-piece battle royale, controversial decisions, stunning box kicking, one of the great Lions tries, kick passes, offloads, sickening tension, bitching and bickering, unforgettable supporters, the Maro Itoje chant and more.

The one thing it didn’t have was a winner, and that felt weird.

The scenes at the final whistle in the third Test said it all, with referee Romain Poite seemingly unwilling to call the drama to a conclusion even after the full-time hooter had sounded and the Lions had driven the All Blacks out over the touchline.

There were looks of confusion everywhere as Eden Park fell silent, such a contrast to the frenetic noise it had delivered throughout the 15-15 draw.

Kieran Read appealed to Poite for another penalty, some players dropped to their knees, others congratulated their team-mates and Owen Farrell explained “it’s a draw” to one of his fellow Lions.

“A bit weird really,” said Farrell of how he felt when he wandered into the mixed zone in his red velvet Lions blazer an hour later. “I suppose it is a brilliant achievement. At the same time, it is never nice to be on the end of a draw.”

That strange feeling was shared by one and all involved in the classic Test match, including Lions lock Maro Itoje.

“It’s an unusual experience,” said Itoje. “When the final whistle blew, are you happy? Are you sad? Are you disappointed? So it’s very weird after the final whistle as we wanted the win and we didn’t get it. But it is what it is.”

Across the room, the All Blacks were sharing in the odd sensation.

“A hollow feeling” was how captain Read described it, while second row Sam Whitelock had that same mixture of dejection and happiness as the Lions.

“I know at the moment all the players have that weird feeling, talking to some of the Lions boys afterwards they’re feeling the same too,” said Whitelock. “It’s just a little bit weird coming out with a drawn series.”

Weird then, very weird. No one lost here, but the sense afterwards was that the All Blacks were the more disappointed. So they should be.

Steve Hansen’s men were the odds-on favourites to claim a whitewash series success but they showed frailties, mainly in not taking glaring chances, place-kicking and perhaps in how they mentally deal with trying circumstances.

That said, they were a joy to watch much of the time, combining attacking creativity and intelligence with some brutal stuff in contact – a little like the Lions.

“Some really good rugby was played over three Test matches, and maybe a drawn series was fair,” said All Blacks boss Hansen.

“We played well in the first one, they played well in the second, and we probably did enough to win it [in the third] but they hung in, got a couple of breaks, and had some magnificent goal-kicking.

“Rugby has always had a draw. It’s not a World Cup final, it’s a three-match series, and my own belief is probably leave it the way it is.”

There will be many who disagree with Hansen on that final point, and it may be that we see a change to the Lions format to include extra time of some sort, or even points difference deciding any drawn series.

The Lions probably need more preparation time too, while there has been talk of them venturing into new territory in Argentina in the future, or at least including regular stop-offs in places like Fiji and Samoa.

What it has shown beyond any doubt whatsoever after this stunning series, though, is that the Lions are here to stay.

“I can understand everyone feels a bit flat, because you think you want a result,” said Gatland.

“But when you reflect back, it’s pretty special to play the best team in the world in their back yard, particularly at Eden Park, where they have a phenomenal record.

“I think we’ll wake up tomorrow and realise. You’d probably say that it would reflect a pretty successful series for the Lions.”

Bring on 2021.

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