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'48 metres out, just off-centre of the posts, the pressure of four nations on his shoulders'

Read an extract from ‘Legacy of the Lions’.

Owen Farrell kicks at goal.
Owen Farrell kicks at goal.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Legacy of the Lions’

EDEN PARK. SATURDAY, 8 July 2017.

A light rain was falling, visible against the bright lights that illuminated the green stage before us. It was a field I had played on in the blue of Scotland and the red of the Lions.

But I wasn’t playing now. Those days were long behind me. I was seated in the stands, watching a new generation of Lions battling to make their mark on history, their red shirts contrasting wonderfully with the black of New Zealand, which seemed to absorb the light like a collapsing star.

The packed stadium was hushed as Owen Farrell, the Lions’ No.12, lined up a shot at goal. 48 metres out, just off-centre of the posts, the pressure of four nations on his shoulders.

He had kicked sensationally throughout the tour – and in the Test series in particular – and despite the significance of these three points, he looked calm and assured as he ran through his kicking routine, as if he were on a training ground back home rather than at the epicentre of the rugby world.

He hit the kick, the ball sailed true. It was 15–15.

Less than three minutes remained on the clock – the final moments of a thrilling, exhausting, pulsating, extraordinary three-match Test series that was locked at one game-all.

Forget the pressure of four nations, as the teams regrouped for the restart there was the pressure of over a hundred years of history between the Lions and the All Blacks pressing down on the shoulders of every player on the field, on the bench and on the coaching staff on the sidelines, while 50,000 sets of eyes gazed from the stands and millions more watched on TV.

Only once in all those years had the Lions emerged victorious in a Test series against the All Blacks. Now Sam Warburton’s men were, perhaps, just over two minutes away from scoring the points they needed to secure a win that would give them rugby immortality. But so too were the All Blacks just a score away from maintaining the great legacy of their predecessors.

Huddled against the cold of that dark midwinter Auckland night, I struggled to sit still. The excitement, the energy of these moments – it was everything that makes Test-match rugby the remarkable spectacle that it is.

‘Li-ons, Li-ons, Li-ons . . .’

The chant reverberated around the ground. Eden Park, a stronghold that hadn’t seen an All Blacks defeat since 1994, was awash with red.

‘It was like that the whole series,’ Kieran Read, the All Black skipper, told me later, with a shake of his head at the memory. ‘I remember getting a real shock when we ran out for the first Test. We don’t normally get many away fans down here in New Zealand, but it felt like the whole bloody place was dressed in red. I still don’t understand how they got so many tickets. Three Tests at home and each time most of the crowd were Lions fans.’

The clock hit 78 minutes as Beauden Barrett, the magician in the All Black No.10 shirt, spun the ball in his hand on halfway and prepared to kick off.

‘Right, win this restart,’ commanded my old Lions teammate, Stuart Barnes, commentating for Sky Sports.

Meanwhile, in the New Zealand commentary box, former All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall noted: ‘Whoever gets the ball gets the last chance.’

Barrett nudged the kick to his right. It hung for a moment and then dropped just over the ten-metre line. A perfect restart for his chasing forwards to contest – and it spooked the Lions, who scrambled desperately to get into position to reclaim possession.

The Lions full back Liam Williams, who had been stationed nearby, backpedalled and leapt for the ball just as Miles Harrison, Barnes’ co-commentator, said, ‘It’s all about the restart—’

Kieran Read had led the All Black charge and arrived almost simultaneously to Williams, his huge hand reaching up between Williams’ arms towards the ball, managing to throw the Welshman off from catching it cleanly.

The ball tipped off Williams’ hand and tumbled forward. Ken Owens, the Lions hooker, had also been racing back to cover the kick. He caught the ball before reason and his knowledge of the laws registered that he was in an offside position. He dropped the ball as if it were suddenly made of molten rock and threw his hands in the air to signal his innocence. Nothing to see here, sir . . .

But referee Romain Poite blew his whistle, his arm raised in the All Blacks’ favour.

My stomach lurched. Oh my God . . . It’s a penalty. He’s offside. I can still feel that moment. The Lions team I had captained to New Zealand in 1993 had suffered a similar fate in the dying moments of the first Test and Grant Fox, the All Blacks’ No.10, had kicked the contentious penalty to win the game.

History was about to repeat itself.

But we didn’t have video referees in those days. Back in 1993, once the referee had made his decision, that was it. In 2017, however, the Lions still had a sliver of hope.

‘I was on the other side of the pitch for that restart and didn’t see what had happened,’ Warburton recalls when I later asked him about the incident. ‘I just remember Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton going nuts, and then I saw the referee’s arm was up.

‘I always made it a point of my captaincy to keep my chat with the ref to a minimum. If you’re constantly in his ear, your words can become white noise. And worse than that, you can start to annoy him. So I always kept my queries to the ref to a minimum – maybe three times a half; maximum four times.

‘In that Test, I’d hardly spoken to Romain during the second half, because there had been no need to. So when his arm went up, I thought, “Fuck, I’ve got nothing to lose, I’ve hardly spoken to him all game.”

british-and-irish-lions-jonathan-sexton-is-tackled-by-new-zealand-all-blackss-sam-whitelock British and Irish Lions Jonathan Sexton is tackled by New Zealand All Blacks’s Sam Whitelock. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

I thought I’d just calmly walk up to him without throwing my arms up in the air. I didn’t know what I was asking for, but I remembered straight away the instance in the quarter-final of the 2015 World Cup when Scotland got knocked out by Australia when they should have won and gone through to the semi-final.

I remember Craig Joubert got that accidental off-side wrong and I always thought afterwards, “Whenever there’s a massive moment like that in international rugby, I think a ref will learn from that instance and just take a step back and make sure he makes the right decision.”

So I went up to Romain and said, “You have to check.” I didn’t want to say what for, but I remember just saying, “You have to check the video. You’ve got to have a look.”’

Poite considered Warburton’s words for a moment and then drew a rectangle in the air to signal that he wanted to speak to the television match official, George Ayoub. The match clock paused on 78 minutes, 34 seconds. Turning his back on the players, Poite casually strolled to the near touchline so that he, Ayoub and assistant referee, Jaco Peyper, could have a confab.

‘And that was it,’ remembers Warburton. ‘I thought, “Right, I can’t do any more than that, he’s going to have another look, and this decision now will be made by the TMO.”’

Ayoub began to replay the incident in slow motion on the stadium’s big screen and the three officials talked through what they were seeing.

‘He’s in an offside position, number 16,’ said Poite, referring to Owens. ‘Red [number 15] touched the ball in-flight and 16 got the ball in front.’

‘Romain, those are all the angles,’ confirmed Ayoub.

‘Are you happy for the knock-on challenge in the air – it was fair?’ asked Poite, just as Warburton appeared to his left.

Wanting to ensure the referee wasn’t swayed by the presence of the Lions captain, Read made his way over to join them.

‘And a penalty kick against red sixteen?’ continued Poite, seemingly unaware of the two huge men now looming beside him.

‘Yes, I am,’ said Ayoub.

Warburton and Read were now talking.

It’s over, I thought to myself. It’s all over . . .

All around the stadium, Lions fans had their heads in their hands. So close. The Lions had been so close. It would be twelve more years before they would get another crack at the All Blacks.

Poite turned around to address the captains. But then he heard a voice on his in-ear radio.

‘Oui, Jérôme?’

It was the other assistant referee, Jérôme Garcès, stationed on the far touchline.

From the television footage, we cannot hear what Garcès said to Poite. But as Poite made his way back to the mark where the infringement took place, his pace slowed. Read, believing that the decision had clearly been made for a penalty, returned to his teammates.

Warburton started to shout to the Lions that they should set themselves for a quick tap, just in case the All Blacks tried something unexpected.

But then Poite called the captains to him.

‘We have a deal,’ he said. ‘We have a deal about the offside from sixteen . . .’

‘Yes,’ said Read, nodding decisively to confirm the penalty decision, yet there was an edge to his voice. He could tell something was up.

‘Sixteen red,’ continued Poite. ‘He didn’t play immediately the ball. It was an accidental offside.’

‘No, no,’ interjected Read. ‘No.’

‘It was an accidental offside,’ repeated Poite. ‘We go for a scrum for black.’

Read put his hand on Poite’s shoulder. ‘Romain,’ he implored. ‘Romain. In the rules, it’s not an accidental offside—’

‘He’d blown for a penalty straight away,’ remembers Read when I asked him about these electric, nerve-shredding moments. ‘So I was immediately like, “That’s the rule, that’s how it’s been ruled for a long time, it’s a clear penalty.” And then this bizarre sequence of events unfolded, because a decision like that is generally never overruled by a TMO or a touchie. From my perspective, I didn’t think twice about it because I felt that he’d made the right call and I didn’t get why the TMO was even looking at it.’

The incredulity was clear on Read’s face as he tried to convince Poite to stick with his original decision.

‘But there was no way he was going to change back,’ says Read, the incredulity once again returning to his face despite the passage of time since the event. ‘Getting a ref to change his initial decision is hard enough – but to change it again? Not a chance.’

Poite waved the captains away and set the mark for the scrum.

‘That was good captaincy from Sam,’ reflects Read. ‘But as All Black captain in that situation you just have to park the fact that the decision has gone against you and reset yourself for the next phase. We had a scrum in their half, two minutes left on the clock and we could still win the game. That is always your mindset as an All Black: clear away what has happened, focus on what happens next; what do we have to do now to score and win this game?’

78 minutes, 34 seconds into the game, Poite restarted the clock and instructed the players to set for the scrum. If you thought the noise in the stadium had been loud before, it was on another level altogether now.

‘The typical All Black fan, especially at home, tends to sit there and watch the game and doesn’t get too excited, doesn’t sing, doesn’t yell too much,’ explains Read.

‘But I think we learned a lot of lessons from the Lions about how to support your team. It was an absolutely awesome atmosphere over those three Tests, and you could feel the vibe every second of each game. I think that was one of the best things to come out of the tour – that New Zealanders began to appreciate the fan experience a little more. They said, “Hey, this is what it’s all about. Let’s have fun. It’s not just about winning and losing, it’s also about being part of this whole experience.”

‘The final few minutes of that third Test, the noise was just going up and up and up. It was incredible.’

kieran-read New Zealand's Kieran Read. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

All Black scrum-half TJ Perenara fed the ball into the scrum. The two packs heaved and pumped their legs.

The All Blacks shifted forward, slowly at first and then at speed. The front-rows began to rotate and Read, the ball now at his feet, had to dribble it to keep control.

It looked for all the world like Poite was going to signal for a penalty in the hosts’ favour, but before the whistle hit his lips, the ball popped loose.

Perenara reached to pick it up, just as Lions scrum-half Rhys Webb stabbed at it with his toe. The ball bobbled away from Perenara and then bounced up into Webb’s arms and the Welshman was away.

He was quickly closed down by Beauden Barrett, so he popped the ball to his left to the supporting No.8 Taulupe Faletau. It was a poor pass and Faletau was unable to control it. Out went Poite’s arm. Another scrum.

79 minutes, 16 seconds on the clock.

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By the time the packs got set and finally engaged, the wail of a siren had cut through the din to signal that regulation time was over. When Perenara fed the ball in, the clock read: 80 minutes, 16 seconds.

‘There is a special page in rugby’s history waiting for this match,’ said Miles Harrison in commentary. ‘We just don’t know how this story is going to end.’

Again, the ball was at Read’s feet. This time he exerted complete control. Peranara spun it left and the All Blacks crashed into midfield, just inside the Lions’ half.

Two phases later, the ball was in Read’s hands and he carried strongly over the 10-metre line.

Substitute centre Malakai Fekitoa burst on to a flat pass from Barrett and punctured the Lions’ defensive wall, making it as far as the twenty-two before he was hauled down.

The forwards punched for two more phases to break a few yards into the 22 and then the ball was whipped wide to the right.

Aaron Cruden stepped, shuffled and drew two defenders to him before floating a basketball pass over Lions wing Elliott Daly’s head to Jordie Barrett. Daly scrambled back to halt the younger Barrett brother but was easily fended off by the rangy full back, who ploughed on down the touchline, eating up the yards.

Liam Williams was the last man in defence and dived desperately for Barrett’s ankles. He just managed to catch him. As the two men slid along the damp grass, just inches from the line, other Lions defenders arrived on the scene like a thundering cavalry and dived on Barrett, the collective weight and momentum of Owen Farrell, CJ Stander and Ben Te’o sliding the All Black into touch. The ball was out. The game was over.

It was breathless, heart-pounding stuff. My hands still shake with adrenaline as I rewatch those final minutes and write these words. Sitting in the stands that night, I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. The whole stadium was on its feet, roaring the players on, like a scene from the Coliseum reborn.

But that couldn’t be it over, surely? I thought, my head spinning. That can’t be the end of the game? There was no doubting the sense of bewilderment that was rippling around the stadium. ‘Do we not go to extra time?’ I asked, voicing the question on everyone’s minds around me.

‘I think we would all have been happy to carry on playing until there was a winner,’ Warburton later tells me.

‘Golden point or something would have been good,’ agrees Read.

‘I think all the players on both sides felt the same,’ continues Warburton. ‘You’re so close to making history – you want a chance to win the thing, not just finish on a draw. Maybe they’ll do that in future. But, at the time, you just had to accept it for what it was.’

‘We were ready to go, to keep going,’ concurs Read. ‘I think if you’d asked the guys out there, every last one of us would have wanted to play it out until it was decided. But that’s the nature of the beast.’

It had been one of the most epic encounters I’d ever seen. The series was like three World Cup finals in a row and, at the end, neither side could be separated. A draw was an unsatisfactory result for many, but it was probably the fair outcome of an engrossing series that had been played out by two outstanding teams, fighting tooth and nail for every second of the three Test matches.

Warburton had handled the situation with Poite superbly, but so too had his opponent. Read and the All Blacks’ dignity in the aftermath has always remained hugely impressive. I’m not sure how dignified the response would have been in Britain and Ireland had the situation been reversed and Poite had downgraded a potential series-winning penalty for the Lions to a scrum . . .

‘It’s important not to be a cry baby over a referee’s decision,’ reflects Read. ‘As an All Black, as a leader, as a captain, I had to put on a brave face for our team and our nation, because it was the nature of a series that was so tough and tight that you just have to accept these decisions and move on.

‘But there was a lot of emotion at the final whistle. You wait twelve years to get a chance to play the Lions – and many players don’t get that chance at all, so you know how lucky you are. But we were there to win, and although we didn’t lose, it was a bizarre feeling to deal with the series being drawn.

‘I just had to pull the players in straight away and get their heads up. And then I began to prepare myself mentally to face the cameras to talk about what had just happened.’

Legacy of the Lions front for web

‘Kieran and I caught up after doing our TV interviews on the pitchside and said that we should get both teams mixed in together for the trophy presentation,’ says Warburton.

‘We said, “Let’s get everyone up and celebrate what the series was,”’ says Read, ‘because we knew it had probably been a good series to watch and it had been very special to have been a part of it.’

The photo that followed is iconic: Read and Warburton smiling as they raise the series trophy, the players from both teams mixed in around them. It is a moment in time – the very essence of what makes a Lions tour so special.

That Lions team had never played together before and they would never play together again. Yet their fleeting existence as a team will remain in people’s minds more vividly than many sides that have been together for years and played in scores of Test matches.

As we headed out of the stadium and into the Auckland night, I kept going over those last few chaotic moments in my mind and the coolness shown by the leaders on both sides. Later, when I was able to watch the replay with the benefit of the audio, I marvelled still further at how the situation was handled.

That three-minute passage of play is not just a wonderful window into different aspects of leadership – from both captains and, indeed, from the referee, who didn’t want the series to be decided by a potentially controversial penalty, as well as Farrell’s coolness to kick the final points – but it also encapsulates the Lions experience for me.

It’s hard to describe the pressure of those moments in international rugby – which are intensified a hundred-fold when put in the context of a Lions Test series.

In that cauldron of fire and fury, Warburton and Read were able to call on all their years of experience to remain calm and clear in a moment that both knew could define their entire lives.

Make no mistake – winning a Lions series sets you on a sporting pedestal for all time; like winning a World Cup or an Olympic gold medal, these moments mark your name forever.

It has always fascinated me how various Lions teams function – successfully or otherwise – and that is not just because I was fortunate enough to captain the tour of 1993.

There is something so magical about a Lions tour, so unique, so enthralling. Every four years the players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales come together with minimal preparation to take on one of the best teams on the planet in their own backyard to try and win two out of three Test matches.

It is an extraordinary challenge full of potential pitfalls and uncertainties which can brutally expose human flaws and frailties. But it can also create legends in the jersey and bonds of friendship and respect that last for a lifetime.

Legacy of the Lions: Lessons in Leadership from the British & Irish Lions by Gavin Hastings is published by Polaris. More info here.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella take a break from eating and drinking to chat about some interesting contract news in Irish rugby.

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