If you were to come out with the above statement back in April you’d have been met with a bewildered knowing smile, but it’s fair to say the last two weeks of test rugby haven’t gone according to script.
The Lions have been written off by many (including myself) from the outset of this tour, and securing a test victory against New Zealand is a massive achievement many believed was beyond them. Very few expected the third test to hold the balance of the series, and the events of the opening two games have been surprising – the Kiwi front five dominating in the opening test, the Lions having a more dangerous set of backs a week later – it’s been an exciting couple of weeks in New Zealand, and this weekend’s series deciding test is the perfect week to cap off an enjoyable 6/7 week spectacle.
Last Week’s Positives
After taking a heavy beating in their opening encounter, the Lions’ front 8 stepped up a notch in a battle that was key to the outcome of the second test. Sam Warburton brought a dogged nuisance to the breakdown alongside the excellent Maro Itoje, while the front five were hugely improved from their previous outing. The pack no doubt benefited from Jerome Kaino’s ‘Sonny Bill Williams’ enforced absence, but they will still take confidence from their turnaround in fortunes.
It’s rare enough for New Zealand to lose a test at home, but to do so without scoring any tries is another matter. That’s something that will give the Lions a huge psychological boost, especially given the tourists scored two tries of their own to close out a memorable win. Taking the confidence of that forward, it takes away from New Zealand’s aura of invincibility heading into the series defining third test.
A final positive for Warren Gatland – his selections paid dividends. The decision to drop the tour’s standout outside back in Ben Te’o after a great first test was a divisive one, while Alun-Wyn Jones was another player under scrutiny after a lacklustre opener. Gatland backed his Welsh enforcer to step-up however, and that he did, being a general nuisance through the 60 minutes he played.
The Sexton/Farrell gamble also paid off, as did Gatland’s surprising reluctance to use the bench – just as it seemed the right time to make changes, Murray/Sexton/Farrell sprung to life in a closing 20 minute spell that saw the tourists score the conclusive two tries.
…and The Negatives
An incredible win and historic victory for the Lions, but the negatives are plain & simple – the Lions’ struggled to beat 14 men, gave away too many penalties, and would have lost the game if Beauden Barrett was more accurate off the kicking tee. They did improve as the game went on, but there will have been plenty of food for thought for Gatland & co. throughout the week gone.
Between Sonny Bill Williams’ red card and the 60th minute, the Lions essentially fell to pieces. It was almost as if they sensed the opportunity in front of them, and let the excitement of a potential victory get into their head and affect their performance. Only in the last twenty minutes did the Gatland’s side begin to hit their stride and look dangerous, as New Zealand impressively kept pace despite being a man down.
It was by no means a vintage performance from the All Blacks, but they kept themselves within 3 points of the result despite their own shortcomings – a testament to their class, and how hard they are to beat.
The biggest work-on point all week will have been discipline. 13 penalties were conceded by the Lions last Saturday, which is a crippling number of fouls for any side. It’s a big turn of events after building wins against the Maoris & Crusaders on their good discipline, and questions have to be asked where that all went wrong. Giving away that many penalties and still winning against New Zealand is nothing short of a miracle, and the Lions’ cannot rely on Beauden Barrett’s missed kicks handing them a victory again this weekend – especially with younger brother Jodie primed to take on kicking duties.
Steve Hansen has thrown a bit of a selection gamble himself this week, handing both Ngani Laumape & Jordie Barrett their first test starts for New Zealand. It’s a big sign of faith from the Kiwi coach heading into one of his most important games in charge, and a calculated one given the impressive season both players have enjoyed with the Hurricanes.
Both players are undeniably talented with a high ceiling of potential, but they’re inexperienced options to bring into such a big occasion and important game. Even outside Laumape, 22 year old Chiefs centre Anton Lienart-Brown is winning only his 12th cap for New Zealand. The All Blacks have always backed their conveyor belt of talent to incredible success, but in a game of fine margins this is a raw area the Lions will need to take advantage of.
Laumape made his debut off the bench in Wellington last weekend, and while he was a bruising force ball in hand, he was exploited at key times in the build up to the Lions’ scores. One such example is below, as the Hurricanes’ centre drifts wide onto Owen Farrell as Jamie George cuts a hard line inside. It’s exactly the type of confusion that the dual playmaking combo of the Lions’ hope to create, with Farrell’s dangerous dummy line drawing the All Black’s substitute expertly.
It’ll be a fascinating battle across the entire backline this Saturday, with New Zealand’s youthful & exciting set containing a strong Hurricanes’ core – Barrett x 2, Laumape, Savea – that should help their new faces settle. Julian Savea returns to play his first part in the series, and he’s a big game player to make an impact if ever there was one. On the Lions’ side there are no changes, and Gatland will be hoping that his improving backline continues to in the vein they left off in Wellington, with Sexton & Farrell in particular continuing to mesh and create problems for their Kiwi opposition.
French referee Romain Poite is the man in the middle for the big day, and pressure will be on his performance with so much at stake in Saturday’s test. Much is made over the All Blacks’ influence over the referee & the rules of the game, and that spotlight will only intensify after Sonny Bill Williams’ red card last weekend.
New Zealand put in a bruising display in Dublin off the back of their last loss in November, and more of the same can be expected tomorrow. The referee on that day, Jaco Peyper, came under huge criticism for his laissez-faire approach to some overly physical contact from the Kiwis with some incidents sparking concerns thereafter. Rory Best spoke earlier in the week about how Ireland expected a physical response, but failed to appropriately deal with it in the pitch – something the Lions will need to front up against in Eden Park, as Kieran Read’s team will throw everything at them.
Poite will have his hands full trying to keep a handle on the scrum – not his strong point – while there will be infringements all over the park, as each side try and score the slightest advantage over one another. He’s a very letter of the law referee so you can imagine he will be kept busy in a game that promises to be as cleverly fought as this one.
Anything Can Happen in 80 Minutes
New Zealand will head into the game as favourites, but that means very little at this stage of the tour. A once in a lifetime billing for the Lions’ players to live up to, they won’t be short of motivation to secure only the second ever successful Lions’ tour of New Zealand. Whatever about the context of last week’s victory, the only thing that’s important is that they’ve given themselves a chance to win the series in tomorrow’s final game.
It’s a chance for Alun-Wyn Jones, already a Lions’ legend, to stake his claim of one of the greatest to ever wear the red jersey. It’s an opportunity for Maro Itoje to solidify his position as one of the game’s most exciting young talents. It’s a big stage for Johnny Sexton to prove any doubters wrong, and remind everyone why he is regarded as one of the best in the business. The list goes on – Owen Farrell, Conor Murray, Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Davies – big game players that can achieve a result that will be remembered, and that can prolong the life of the Lions in the modern game.
The stage is set and all eyes will be on Auckland this weekend, as the Lions & All Blacks prepare to deliver one of the most anticipated test matches of the last decade. The occasion is there, hopefully the game – and the Lions – deliver.