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Gatland says team must improve if they're to conquer powerful New Zealand

New Zealand 21 Lions 24

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The hype around the Lions is too often over-done, but on the back of a special night in Wellington this group of players have history in their grasp.

Whatever about ­hyperbolic sporting immortality, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to win a series against the double world champions, to shift rugby's ­balance of power and to join the 1971 team as the All Black ­conquerors.

For a number of them, it is a chance to win successive series.

They repaired to ­Queenstown last night to help take the ­pressure off the final week of a long, hard rugby season.

While the ­Lions decompress, New Zealand made their way back to Auckland to lick their wounds.

Their mettle has been tested and while they have no right to be aggrieved about the 25th-minute red card issued to Sonny Bill Williams by Jerome Garces that ultimately changed the game, they are sure to use it as fuel to the fire internally.

They remain the best team in the world, but the Lions have exposed vulnerabilities.

On Saturday, the Lions almost won despite themselves.

Played in desperate ­conditions, this was a game that almost defied analysis because of its back-and-forth nature.

You had the Lions starting well and dominating the first quarter, only to go 3-0 behind; the All Blacks then ­responding to the red card by owning ­possession and ­territory but ­failing to capitalise on the tourists' dreadful discipline as Beauden Barrett's kicking ­inaccuracy cost his side dear.

And then, just as it looked to have slipped beyond them, the Lions kicked into gear in the final quarter; outscoring their hosts 15-3 from the 59th minute on, scoring two tries of real quality and then holding their nerve to win the crucial penalty which Owen Farrell knocked over.

It was a great win, but it was far from a great performance and the knowledge that they have much to improve will be a fillip in this final week as they prepare for the 'Blacklash'.

"There were a lot of things on Saturday I wasn't happy about," Warren Gatland conceded.

"I wasn't happy about some of the penalties and the discipline. I am happy we got ourselves out of a hole and showed some real character and courage, I am happy with our physicality.

"We've got to make sure we don't give away stupid and soft penalties - key players were guilty of that. That needs to improve.

"Our kicking game needs to be more accurate.

"The ironic thing is this is the best team in the world and, for two Test matches, they really haven't stressed us.

"They have squeezed us, made us give away penalties and that has been to our downfall, but we haven't seen the expansive rugby that the All Blacks are known for - creating havoc.

"We've coped with that and if we can continue to cope with that and improve in other areas, then we are going to see, ­hopefully, a great Test match.

"We have poked the bear, but hopefully the wounded Lion from last week is still recovering as well."

The All Blacks accepted the Williams red card with ­stoicism, but had they queried Jerome Garces' consistency they might have had a case.

The French referee stayed strong to correctly dismiss the centre for an ugly shoulder charge that connected ­ squarely with Anthony Watson's head, but he deemed Mako ­Vunipola's elbow to Barrett's face as a ­yellow and missed Seán O'Brien's swinging arm that left Waisake Naholo needing a Head Injury Assessment.

NEW ZEALAND: I Dagg; W Naholo (A Cruden 59 HIA), A Lienert-Brown, SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara 66); J Moody (W Crockett 53), C Taylor (N Harris 80), O Franks (C Famuina 53); B Retallick, S Whitelock (S Barrett 73); J Kaino (N Laumape 27), S Cane (A Savea 64), K Read (capt).

LIONS: L Williams; A Watson (J Nowell 25-31 HIA), J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola (J McGrath 66), J George, T Furlong (K Sinckler 62); M Itoje, AW Jones (C Lawes 59); S Warburton (capt), S O'Brien (J McGrath 64-66), T Fauletau.

Ref - J Garces (France)

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