AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — With a plastic clown nose perched above a wry smile, it was hard to find a happier man at Eden Park on Saturday than British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland.
Heavily criticized from the moment they arrived in New Zealand, and given no hope of beating rugby's reigning world champions, the Lions defied the odds to draw the final test 15-15 and tie the three-match series.
For most of the players and spectators who had expected to see a clear winner, there was an overwhelming feeling of bewilderment, frustration and disappointment.
But not for Gatland, a New Zealander himself. Lampooned as a clown by one New Zealand newspaper, he couldn't resist the chance to poke fun at his detractors.
"For us to come here to New Zealand, against the back-to-back world champions, and draw a series, I think is an unbelievable achievement considering we were completely written off," Gatland said. "Everyone was talking about this being a 3-0 whitewash ... this group of players has shown unbelievable character."
Everything seemed to be go according to the script for the home team when the All Blacks convincingly won the first test 30-15, but the Lions outscored New Zealand two tries to nil to win the second test 24-21 and force a decider which ended in a thrilling but also anticlimactic stalemate, resulting in just the second drawn series in the almost 120-year history of Lions tours.
"I can understand everyone feels a bit flat because you want a result," Gatland said. "But I think we'll reflect on it and say it was pretty special to put a team together to play against the best team in the world in their backyard and particularly here at Eden Park where they have a phenomenal record in terms of their success over a number of years.
"I think we'll wake up tomorrow and think that's not bad. If we'd been asked six weeks ago 'would you take a drawn series 1-1?' you'd probably say 'yeah,' that would reflect a pretty successful series for the Lions."
Perhaps fittingly after an epic series that captivated the rugby world, there was a hint of controversy right at the end when French referee Romain Poite initially awarded a late penalty to New Zealand that would have given the All Blacks a shot at victory only to reverse the decision after consulting the video review official.
New Zealand captain Kieran Read thought the penalty should have stood but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said his team should have already wrapped up the match after scoring two unanswered tries and wasting several other chances.
"We could have won if we'd taken the opportunities we created," Hansen said. "It was an average way for it to finish, but that's sport. We've got to accept that and move on and get better at what we're trying to do."
New Zealand's next assignment is the annual Rugby Championship, which includes Australia, South Africa and Argentina, while the Lions will not tour again until 2021 when they visit South Africa.
Gatland coached the Lions victory over Australia in 2013 and said he might consider doing the job again in four years.
"There's a lot of water to go under the bridge before that," he said. "My focus now is on Wales and the autumn and looking towards (the 2019 World Cup). I'm definitely finishing there unless they get rid of me before that time ... you never say never."