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Liam Williams inspires Lions but proves to be false dawn against New Zealand

The Guardian logo The Guardian 24/06/2017 Andy Bull at Eden Park
Liam Williams took a risk in running at the All Blacks, rather than kicking downfield, that led to the Lions’ first try. © AAP Liam Williams took a risk in running at the All Blacks, rather than kicking downfield, that led to the Lions’ first try.

The Lions started the first Test in a great gushing rush of rugby, as if the referee’s first whistle had been the signal to pop the cork on a bottle they had been saving since they arrived in New Zealand three weeks ago. The All Black line broke open in front of Jonathan Davies, who slipped past Sam Whitelock and sprinted into New Zealand’s 22. He passed to Conor Murray, hard on his heels. Murray was brought down by Aaron Smith’s lunging tap tackle, but the ball made its way to Elliot Daly on the left wing. Daly sped for the line, slid for it even as Israel Dagg wrapped himself around his back to roll him into touch. Daly made it, but the ball did not. The Lions were inches away from the perfect start.

It felt like a good omen but turned out to be anything but. It was the first of half a dozen good chances that the Lions made and missed. The strange part was, the one try they did score while the game was alive was conjured from nothing. That was in the 36th minute. They were way back in their own 22, Anthony Watson leapt to gather a bouncing ball, which he tossed idly infield to Liam Williams. He took a step to his left, to slide out of the way of the onrushing Kieran Read, who was looking to thump him all the way to Wellington, ready for the second Test in seven days’ time. Having won himself a little space, Williams had a moment to choose what to do next.

The easy option was to boot the ball downfield. It’s what most would have done in that situation. Not Williams. It’s not the way he plays, not what Warren Gatland picked him to do. Instead, he started to drift across to his left, one of those silly risks that makes you hold your breath if he’s on your team. No, man, no. Aaron Cruden was the first to him. Williams palmed Cruden aside and moved on. Next, up stepped Sonny Bill Williams. The Welshman eased around him with deft little switch of direction. All of a sudden, the field opened up in front of him. He hared off into the open space ahead. Go, man, go.

Williams turned over his shoulder to see what was going on in his wake. Facing forward once more, he drew in the first tackler he met and offloaded the ball to Davies, who moved it on again to Daly. He cunningly shaped to cut inside Anton Lienert-Brown, then switched back and shot past him on the outside. Daly passed it back to Davies, who bust into Beauden Barrett, the Lions oh so close to the try-line now. Davies turned as Barrett made the tackle and tossed the ball back to Sean O’Brien who dived over the line. From start to finish, one end of the field to the other, it was all over in 19 seconds.

It was glorious rugby, each deed so swift in the execution that it all unfolded too fast to follow. It was as good as the game gets, one of those moments when, as a spectator, the blood rushes from your gut, your legs straighten up and before you know it you are on your feet roaring them on. “It was one of the best Test tries I’ve ever seen,” Steve Hansen said. He could afford to be gracious.

The try lifted the Lions to new heights. For 15 minutes, they played the kind of rugby that makes men famous. They tore New Zealand apart twice more. Davies smashed through the midfield, swapped passes with Murray as they ran down the left wing but the move ended when Ben Te’o lost his footing and fell while there was a man waiting outside him.

Then Williams came on again. This time he released Watson with a wonderful underhand offload. In between all this, the Lions won a penalty, which they kicked to the corner to try to drive over from a lineout. But the All Blacks turned them over. The Lions squandered another attacking lineout later on.

Before the match, Murray explained the lesson he had learned that famous day in Chicago, when Ireland beat the All Blacks. “You’ve got to keep playing,” he said. “You’ve got to keep attacking.” The Lions did. They kept swinging, only, the punches did not land. “There were a couple of golden opportunities,” Gatland said. “We created them but we didn’t finish them off.”

Among it all, they made too many other mistakes to afford such profligacy. Williams spilled a simple catch that led straight to a try. Fifteen glorious minutes wasn’t anything like enough against the All Blacks, the most unforgiving of teams. All those missing inches added up into a large defeat.

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