World rugby has a series decider every bit as big as a World Cup final after the British and Irish Lions leveled the series against the All Blacks in Wellington.
It is also the result every neutral wanted.
If not in Wellington, given the match circumstances, then never for the Lions.
The Lions played 15 versus 14 for 50 minutes after Sonny Bill Williams was correctly red carded in the first quarter and outscored the All Blacks two tries to nil.
It was the most uncharacteristic implosion of stupidity from Williams and the punishment was his team lost.
Somehow it seemed the world champion All Blacks would survive Williams’s departure because of a combination of their class and the Lions collective disregard for discipline.
Beauden Barrett kicked seven penalties but he also missed three that would have shut out the Lions and won New Zealand the series.
Barrett is a magnificent athlete and a revelation in the game but as a Test flyhalf he is still second best to Dan Carter’s decade of genius.
Barrett’s goalkicking career accuracy is 71 percent and it needed 80 percent from him to fashion an unlikely All Blacks win.
The Lions discipline was diabolical in the opening quarter of the second half and they gave Barrett five opportunities to seal a series win. His goalkicking wasn’t good enough and his two misses kept the match in the balance.
The Lions in the final 10 minutes were controlled and composed and it is in this period that they did enough to secure a famous win.
The All Blacks must be applauded for how they fronted with just 14 players and how they competed given the reshuffles in the backs and forwards, but the Lions players would never have recovered mentally had they lost a game with such a decided advantage.
The decider in Auckland will be brutal and if the All Blacks keep 15 players on the field for the entire match I believe they will win emphatically. For now they lost and the accolades go to the visitors who refused to surrender when trailing 18-9 and 21-14.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read complimented the Lions defence and quality of play in the final 10 minutes. Read said they shut down the All Blacks attack and deserved the result.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said the commitment of his players was exceptional but the discipline and accuracy were not. He congratulated the Lions, acknowledged they deserved the victory and said his team would come back stronger in Auckland for the series decider.
Lions captain Sam Warburton was quick to point out the significance of the one-man advantage for such a lengthy period, but equally he savoured the quality of the win and the fight, spirit and class of his players.
The Lions in the final 10 minutes were better than New Zealand. They looked the more likely to score tries and break the 21-all deadlock.
The Jonny Sexton/Owen Farrell No 10 and No 12 combination unlocked a New Zealand defence that was always in trouble the moment Williams was red carded.
The Lions defence was also magnificent to keep the All Blacks tryless, but the All Blacks lost their attacking potency when they lost Williams.
The limpness of the All Blacks attack was further exposed when Aaron Cruden played flyhalf for the last 15 minutes and Barrett was moved to fullback.
Cruden’s decision-making was poor and his cross kick option with 90 seconds on the clock was just a bad choice. The All Blacks trailed by three points but they had the field position and most importantly the possession. It was the meekest of surrenders to what had been a heroic team effort with the one player disadvantage.
The Lions, unlike most Test teams, had the quality of player to close out the game once they finally got ahead on 76 minutes.
The send off of Williams added to the drama of the occasion and there was uncertainty about the winner until the 79th minute. The rugby was tough without being terrific, but there’s no denying just how terrific the result is for the Lions, the neutral and international rugby.
*How the NZHerald rated the players
*Kiwi Rugby Writer Liam Napier’s view
*The British view from Independent