Lions have what it takes to claim immortality against All Blacks
The third test is the hardest, but Lions have tries in them if opportunities come
How to quantify this one? Rugby’s “greatest series”, to quote Sky Sport NZ’s advertising campaign – and that hyperbole doesn’t seem excessive – has reached its first series-deciding showdown since 1993. Viewed in that light, it’s possibly the biggest game of the professional era outside of World Cups.
For the back-to-back world champions, it’s an opportunity for a somewhat remodelled, younger team, captained by Kieran Read in his 100th test, and marshalled by the world player of the year, Beauden Barrett, and his brothers, to emulate illustrious names of the All Blacks’ past in the post-Richie McCaw and Dan Carter era and cement their own status.
For the Lions it’s an even rarer chance to grasp a slice of rugby-playing immortality, and emulate something only one Lions squad has ever achieved before. Then it was the sepia-tinged class of Willie John, Gibson, an array of Welsh legends and others, back in 1971.
That’s all then. Truly, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, never to be experienced again.
The very nature of the tour and the series so far has set up the climax perfectly. The Lions were largely written off before this “suicidal” tour and from the outset. Gradually the quality of their players was honed into two strong teams, albeit one stronger than the other.
Even then, in the first test, they left opportunities behind, whereas the All Blacks clinically took theirs, whereupon the Lions defied expectations as 5/1 outsiders a week ago with a drama-filled comeback, admittedly against 14 men for 45 of the last 55 minutes on a raucous night in a rain-sodden Westpac Stadium. They were the clinical ones, with two nicely created and strongly finished tries. The Red Army were in raptures and are liable to be buttressed by further re-enforcements here. The All Blacks fans have been provoked into finding their voice. Another filthy forecast will only add to the drama.
Momentum with Lions
Who’d have thought, at the outset, that coming into this climactic third test, the Lions would not only have the momentum, but would have an unchanged side in a test for the first time since 1993? And meanwhile, that the All Blacks would be making three changes in personnel, including a 20-year-old (Jordan Barrett) and 24-year-old (Ngani Laumpape) making their first test starts in an untried back three and new midfield?
Revenge is a powerful spur in rugby, not least when the matches come close together. Wounded pride, and a whiff of cordite and all that, and there’ll plenty in the Auckland air. The Lions had it last week, the All Blacks this, and Ireland felt the full, brutal force of this “blacklash” in November.
Yet Warren Gatland is adamant, as is Johnny Sexton, that this Lions team can be even better again.
“We also still don’t think we’re at our best, we still think we can improve. Obviously there’s going to be an improvement in the All Blacks but it’s something we don’t think is going to be a shock to us. Rory Best spoke earlier in the week about how the Irish felt they didn’t handle the physicality that the All Blacks brought in the game two weeks after the Chicago game, even though they’d spoken about it. We’re ready for it.”
“I think they’re going to try to dominate us up front, particularly in the tight five, and try and give some of their inexperienced backs some go-forward. If they don’t get that advantage up front – and we’re aware of making sure we try and negate the threat of their tight five – it should make the game interesting.”
Lions want more
Despite their Queenstown time-out, and satisfaction from last week, there’s no sense that the Lions players are content with their lot, according to Gatland.
“I haven’t witnessed that. I hope I don’t see it on Saturday night because that would be pretty disappointing. There’s a group of players there who are incredibly competitive and realise this is a massive opportunity to win a series in NZ. It doesn’t come round very often. These Irish players who played in Chicago know what it was like two weeks later; they’ve another chance to make sure they don’t get caught with their pants down.”
As in the previous two tests, the lines in the sand are liable to again be drawn close in along the gain line. The All Blacks won the collisions in round one, the Lions – with some tampering in personnel – in round two. The personnel now largely remains the same, with Laumape on from the start after being the All Blacks’ most potent runner, but also their weakest defender, a week ago.
Sean O’Brien’s availability is a game changer, or at any rate his nonavailability would have been. If the Lions can reproduce the same strength and accuracy in the tackle close in, and if O’Brien, Sam Warburton and co can slow down the All Blacks’ customary high-tempo game – in other words, if they can stifle Beauden Barrett, they have every chance.
With yet more biblical rain forecast, the scrums could be a significant factor, as again will the referee, in this instance Romain Poite. He showed in the series decider four years ago that, as ever, he is both a strong, thick-skinned personality and favours the scrum going forward, whatever the means. The All Blacks will assuredly go after the Lions at scrum time.
The Lions have lost the penalty count by a combined 24-15 in the tests to date, and Gatland clearly feels the Lions haven’t been given a fair deal yet, and particularly in this series. He will meet with Poite, his assistants Jerome Garces and the hitherto unsatisfactory Jaco Peyper, a description that could also apply to the TMO George Ayoub.
All Gatland wants is that they have an open mind.
“That’s the message I will hopefully give to the officials tomorrow night when I meet them. We’ve got the confidence and self-belief to win this Saturday and win the series, so all we ask of them is to be open-minded, not to be surprised by us being in front and good enough to win. That’s an important message I am trying to deliver. I am not questioning their integrity or anything. It’s just that sometimes it’s a mindset. The message is just, if there are some 50-50 calls, to be open-minded.”
Won’t be fazed
To support Gatland’s theory that there is more in this team, the Sexton-Farrell combo was at the heartbeat of the two tries that turned the game on its head and has given the lie to Warrenball while giving them a cutting edge, which has been sharpened by a brand-new back three who have only played two games together. They also have a core of proven Lions. They won’t be fazed.
The All Blacks haven’t lost at Eden Park since France won 23-20 in 1994, and have won 37 tests in a row there. They are hot favourites, and could win well, but if opportunity knocks, these Lions have tries in them.
After all the verbal sparring up until this point a week ago, both Gatland and Steve Hansen assumed a more restrained, balanced mindset, culminating in them both being quite philosophical on Thursday. Indeed, both had the exact same choice of words when maintaining this game “will not define these players”.
Nor should it. They all have or will achieve plenty more.
Nevertheless, immortality beckons, and all that.
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).
Replacements: Nathan Harris (Chiefs), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders),
Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs) or Lima Sopoaga (Highalnders), Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders).
BRITISH AND 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.