Referee’s bizarre decision brings Lions series to an end

Kieran Reads face is a picture of incredulity as referee Romain Poite downgrades a penalty against Ken Owens to a scrum. Photograph: Getty
Kieran Reads face is a picture of incredulity as referee Romain Poite downgrades a penalty against Ken Owens to a scrum. Photograph: Getty
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To borrow from Sam Warburton in the immediate aftermath of this Titanic struggle: “Wow!”

Returning home from a rugby dinner a few weeks back I shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be a professional gambler and his chosen area of expertise was rugby. If he had money on yesterday’s outcome he has already retired by now such were the long odds against it happening.

At one point midway through the first half it looked like business as usual at Eden Park but the All Blacks’ execution let them down. Admittedly the Kiwis carved out two sumptuous tries from Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett, with each man playing a key role in the creation of the other’s touchdown.

But they proved the exception rather than the rule because time and again the Blacks were presented with an open goal only to sky the ball into the back row of the stands. Julien Savea failed to hold on to Jordie Barrett’s pass with nothing standing between him and the Lions’ try line just five minutes into this game. Beaudon Barrett and Laumape both spilled the ball just metres from the line and if Beaudon Barrett passed to Savea rather than Laumape after intercepting Owen Farrell’s pass near his own line it’s try time at the other end of the field. Oh, and the Kiwi stand-off left five points on the field with two missed kicks.

New Zealand could have been 10-0 to the good after ten minutes and out of sight by half time but the home side had made twice as many handling errors as the visitors and at the break, much to everyone’s surprise, the Lions were still in touch at 12-6.

But poor execution wasn’t the only Kiwi vice because ill discipline cost them again, Jerme Kaino lucky to see yellow rather than red with Romain Poite explaining that he hit Alun-Wyn Jones in the face without much force. Jones might have argued with the former French detective’s review of the evidence.

If that was clumsy then Kieran Read was plain dumb. The New Zealand skipper was presented at the start of this series as a mixture of Homer and Heracles, a warrior/poet who suckled the soul of this All Black squad at his bosom.

When Beaudon Barrett kicked the ball to start the second half the All Blacks skipper grabbed hold of Liam Williams’ shirt, dragging him yards up-field before throwing his body on the floor. The Lions’ full-back didn’t have the ball and you just can’t imagine Richie McCaw doing something similar.

Elliot Daly’s 60-yard penalty was suitable punishment for Read who looked like he’d just swallowed a slug when interviewed immediately after the match.

Such was the intensity of the match that mistakes were rife on both sides. In the opening quarter Farrell played the worst 20 minutes of his life – everything he touched turned to dust.

Jon Davies saved him once, tackling back Laumape, after that interception and the same man jumped out of the line to wallop Jordie Barrett. Elsewhere Maro Itoje was confirming his status as the best lock in world rugby with an astonishingly athletic display of soft and hard skills that included lineout steals, linking, turnovers and countless carries.

Whatever else this series means for world rugby you suspect that Kiwi/French relations have sunk to their lowest point since the Rainbow Warrior was sent to the bottom of Auckland harbour in 1985.

While Jerome Garces was correct to red card Sonny Bill Williams last weekend, you have to scratch your head about Poite’s decision to amend his original “offside” on Ken Owens to “accidental offside” after the Welsh hooker was clearly shown grabbing hold of the ball before dropping it like a hot potato after Williams’ fumbled the final re-start forward.

Poite confirms with his TMO that Read’s challenge was fair and agrees that it is a penalty against red. The referee then walks slowly back to the spot, deep in thought, calls the captains towards him and declares: “We have a deal about the offside from 16… he didn’t play it deliberately, the ball, it was an accidental offside.”

“No, no,” Read can’t believe his ears and neither can the rest of the New Zealand nation listening in to this Damascene moment..

Still a drawn match and a drawn series suggests that European Rugby is in rude good health, at least British rugby is because the French were whitewashed in South Africa.

The All Blacks will regroup but they will do so with their invincible reputation somewhat dented, which is good for world rugby, and hopefully a resurgent Springboks can make the Rugby Championship properly competitive.

And any thoughts of abandoning the Lions’ tours simply won’t wash given the huge amounts of excitement, money, support and sheer sporting drama that this squad has generated over the past seven weeks.