New York, NY – The 2017 British and Irish Lions will have the opportunity to write their names in rugby folklore on Saturday when they take on the All Blacks in the third test of their tour of New Zealand. After a sobering loss in the first test in Auckland, the Lions bounced back last week to clinch a tense victory in Wellington, setting up a series decider back at Eden Park.
It is easy to caveat the Lions’ win last Saturday; the All Blacks played with 14 men for 55 minutes after Sonny Bill Williams was red carded, Beauden Barrett missed three very kickable penalties and in spite of their numerical advantage, the Lions needed a 76th minute penalty to emerge victorious. However on the flip side of this, the Lions fought back from a 9 point deficit while it was 14 vs 14 after Mako Vunipola had been yellow carded, the Lions defence kept the All Blacks try-less for the first time in 39 games and in spite of giving away a mind-blowing 13 penalties the Lions still came out on top. The midfield partnership of Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton worked well, the introduction of Warburton into the back row helped with slowing down the All Black’s possession, Maro Itoje was a colossus Alun Wyn Jones justified his selection. The win has given the Lions a huge confidence boost, particularly when viewed against pre-tour expectations that the tourists wouldn’t be able to beat any of the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, let alone have a hope in the test series. Now the momentum is with the Lions, and the weight of expectation will hang even heavier on the All Blacks on Saturday; the New Zealand fans are supportive, but they regard victory as the norm. While it certainly wouldn’t be an embarrassment to lose a series to the best players Britain and Ireland can combine, it would be unexpected, particularly at home, and no All Black wants to be part of the first group to lose a Lions tour since 1971. They’ll be feeling that pressure come Saturday, however it would be foolish to think that the Lions are now favourites for this game; the bookmakers still favour New Zealand heavily and one can only imagine the intensity and focus of preparation in the All Blacks’ camp this week.
Head Coach Warren Gatland has picked an unchanged 23-man squad for Saturday’s match, the first time since 1993 that a Lions squad has stayed consistent from one test match to another. Gatland is putting his faith in those who prevailed last week and resisting the calls to bring Courtney Lawes into the starting lineup following his strong showing off the bench in Wellington. The All Blacks however, have made a number of changes to their backline; with Williams suspended as a result of last week’s red card, Ngani Laumape comes in at 12 to make his first international start. Jordie Barrett will also start for the All Blacks for the first time, coming in at 15 as Israel Dagg moves to the wing in place of the dropped Waisake Naholo… Julian Savea is handed a start in place of Reiko Ioane. With an untested centre pairing with just 13 caps between them and a full back making his first start, the Lions will undoubtedly have the more experienced backline, however these New Zealand youngsters are prodigious talents who the Lions cannot afford to underestimate. The All Blacks will be smarting after their first home defeat in eight years, and concerns of a “Black-Lash” are very real; New Zealand were uncharacteristically inaccurate at key times in last week’s game, but there is no way they will play so poorly for a second consecutive match.
The Lions must also improve, particularly from a disciplinary perspective, if they are to stand any chance of shocking the rugby world and winning the series.
Playing for the Lions in a test match is the ultimate honour for any British and Irish player; the achievement of winning a test series for the Lions, especially in New Zealand, sits only just behind that of winning a World Cup, but is accompanied by a mystique not present when playing for one’s country. For the All Blacks, Lions tours come around only once every 12 years, offering a once in a generation opportunity to add a truly unique honour to their rugby resumes. This test match will be a titanic clash of two incredibly powerful and passionate teams giving it absolutely everything. Will the pressure-cooker environment be too much for the All Blacks inexperienced back line to handle? Or will their class and home advantage prevail? Strap yourselves in folks, this one won’t be for the faint of heart.
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