‘Biggest game ever’ for Lions as immortality beckons
New Zealand media’s treatment of Warren Gatland is disgraceful, says coach’s assistant
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions
Venue: Eden Park.
Kick-off: 7.35pm NZ time/8.35am Irish/UK time.
On TV: Live on Sky Sports
The Lions embarked upon a tour described as “suicidal” by Graham Henry and both they and their head coach were derided after a scratchy opening win over the Barbarians and a loss to the Blues, and at various points along the way. Come the final Saturday, they stand on the cusp of immortality.
It’s been quite the journey; a rollercoaster ride up and down the Land of the Long White Cloud which scaled epic heights in Wellington last Saturday when they became the first side to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in eight years.
For the momentous climax came the hardest part of all, ending the All Blacks 37-match winning run at Eden Park since France won 23-20 in 1994.
Seán O’Brien has played 49 Tests for Ireland and four for the Lions. He’s been part of a Lions Test series win, been in an Irish Six Nations-winning team and three European Cup-winning squads with Leinster. So how does this rate?
“The biggest,” he says with a steely-eyed intent. “This is the biggest game I’ve ever been involved in, I think, this weekend.”
The former All Blacks winger and Italian and Blues head coach, John Kirwan, said earlier this week that regardless of the third Test result, Warren Gatland’s legacy is secure, and there’s even been grudging respect from the New Zealand Herald.
Demonisation of Gatland
Yet the portrayal of him as a clown amid an almost daily demonisation of him will not be easily forgotten. One of his assistants with Wales and here, Rob Howley, said: “The way Warren Gatland’s been treated, it’s been a disgrace, hasn’t it? It’s an absolute disgrace. We all love sport and rugby and you can be critical of technical or tactical elements of the Lions or New Zealand, but when that becomes personal criticism I think we all step over the mark and that’s happened over the last four weeks of the tour.”
“He’s a Kiwi. You have to applaud what Warren Gatland’s achieved as a Kiwi in the northern hemisphere – and I’ve no doubt what he’ll achieve when he comes back to New Zealand as well. He’s probably one of the best coaches in world rugby at this moment in time.”
Asked if he envisaged Gatland being All Blacks coach one day, Howley said: “Yeah, I got no doubt he will be.” Citing Gatland’s success with Connacht, Ireland and Wales, not to mention Wasps, where Howley played, he added: “I learned more as a player when I was coached by Warren Gatland at the age of 31 than I had by any other coaches. And I’ve been very fortunate to be coached by a lot of coaches.
“He understands the games, he understands players, and I think that’s the biggest asset that he’s got,” said Howley, which was perhaps a legacy of his time as understudy to Sean Fitzpatrick.
All the while, Howley said, Gatland remained “calm and relaxed” in steering the Lions through a relentless schedule. “At the start of the tour you were going at 25mph and now we’re going at 18mph,” said Howley.
The emergence of the Sexton-Farrell axis may have contributed to the All Blacks recalling Julian Savea, and an indication that they would defend pretty flat.
“I think they will revert to the kicking game,” he added, and “they’ll come off 9. It’s about making sure that our systems in place that were good last week are better than they were the week before.
“If we can do that, it’s making sure that when we’ve got the ball, we take our opportunities. It’s one game, as a coach and a player that you are going to be so excited because it is the ultimate challenge of creating history. That’s what we’ve got to look forward to.”
New Zealand: Jordan Barrett (Hurricanes); Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs), Ngane Laumape (Hurricanes), Julien Savea (Hurricanes); Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders); Joe Moody (Crusaders), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs) Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders, captain).
British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England,) Jamie George (Saracens, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales, capt), Sean O’Brien (Leinster, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England), Courtney Lawes (Northampton, England), CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland), Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England), Jack Nowell (Exeter, England).
Referee: Romain Poite (France).
Previous meetings: Played 40, New Zealand 30 wins, 3 draws, Lions 7 wins.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 2/7 New Zealand, 22/1 Draw, 7/2 Lions. Handicap betting (Lions +11 pts) Evens New Zealand, 19/1 Draw, Evens Lions.
Forecast: The Lions to win.