There were few of us here to be honest who imagined that we would get to write a headline like the one above when Warren Gatland and his boys boarded the plane to New Zealand. In all honesty we were convinced that it was going to be all done and dusted by the Second Test. However, history is a powerful force and clearly the legend behind the Lions shirt, some lucky breaks and some outstanding defence last weekend enabled the Lions to suddenly turn this series on its head albeit by the narrowest of margins. With expectations now raised to a fever pitch for both sets of players and supporters, this weekend’s epic showdown at Eden Park has the potential to go down as one of the biggest Lions encounters in recent memory. All that being said though spare a thought for the Men in Red as what they are being asked to do, has been done by very few and next to hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy aloft is probably one of the most daunting challenges faced by any rugby team in the professional era. Eden Park is probably one of the most hallowed grounds in rugby with an almost religious reverence and awe attached to it, and since 1994 only those who wear black emerge triumphant. If and it’s a very big if the Lions were to completely upset the enormous odds stacked against them, they would go down in history as one of the greatest Lions touring outfits ever despite their middling fortunes in the provincial matches this tour. New Zealand will simply not entertain the idea of coming off second best and as a result the Lions will have to find yet another higher gear from last weekend, something we are not convinced they have in the long run. Either way an epic Test awaits as this Series has suddenly become the most exciting rugby event since the World Cup!
New Zealand vs British and Irish Lions
Saturday, July 8th
As mentioned above we were fairly certain when this tour started that the preview of this match would be one based on a damage limitation exercise as the Lions would have lost the first two Tests and thus the series. Last weekend, proved us blissfully wrong even though against our better judgement we hoped and even dared to predict a Lions win, despite much of our analysis heavily favoring the All Blacks. It was a prediction based simply on heart and less on common sense and one which wanted to see a series decider so that the tradition of Lions tours was held intact. We were delighted that we were ultimately given cause to celebrate after an enthralling Test match. Sure there was controversy aplenty at times, and the Lions did get lucky to a certain extent, but when it mattered most they held their nerve and threw the All Blacks off course, something we see very rarely.
We agree with many of the articles that we’ve seen since the epic dustup in Wellington last Saturday, that had the All Blacks been playing with a full complement of fifteen men last weekend then the result may have been very different. There has been much debate about the red card received by New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, which proved to be such a pivotal moment in the match, and the Lions Mako Vunipola only getting a yellow for a seemingly similar offence. We have looked at the footage of both incidents repeatedly and feel that referee Jerome Garces did actually make the right call. Vunipola’s challenge was clumsy and careless but he appears to glance off Barrett in attempting the charge down rather than deliberately aiming for his head as some aggrieved supporters suggest. The Sonny Bill Williams challenge is equally clumsy but his shoulder charge with no arms going into the tackle is clearly aimed at Anthony Watson’s head where he makes contact. Sadly in the interests of player welfare the call had to be made as the Williams challenge is potentially more dangerous than that of Vunipola’s even though we don’t actually think it was intended with any malice on the part of Williams. The debate on this is likely to rage long after Romain Poite’s final series ending whistle on Saturday, but it was an important call that needed to be made even if it did have a huge impact on the outcome of the second Test.
The Lions at times were lucky to win on Saturday. Although they were spectacular in defence and weathered their patch with only 14 men exceptionally well, after Vunipola’s yellow card, there were still too many errors and for a thirty minute period up to around the 65th minute their discipline was woeful. Had New Zealand fly half Beauden Barrett been more accurate with the boot we’d be having a much different history lesson. However, they upped their intensity dramatically from the first Test, and at times played some outstanding rugby and most importantly outscored the All Blacks in the try department 2 tries to none. In the last ten minutes it may not have been pretty but the Lions managed to hang on against a determined New Zealand onslaught. Perhaps most important of all they clearly rattled the All Blacks to the point where they looked unsure of themselves and just a tad disorganised, something they are usually able to fix by the final quarter but not so last weekend in Wellington. To achieve this against an All Black side on home soil is a clear testament to the fact that although it may not have been perfect last weekend, the Lions found something special to bring to the table in Wellington which had eluded them up to that point.
So more of the same will be required this weekend, but the Lions, if they are to stand any chance, must improve and build on the tactics that worked so well for them in Wellington. Just like last Saturday it is going to be a titanic struggle in the forwards with no quarter given. Apart from a purple patch in terms of discipline the Lions were outstanding at the breakdown in the Second Test and expect no quarters to be given here once more. In the front rows though we still hand the edge to New Zealand, as despite the Lions heroics we feel the experience of New Zealand’s two props Joe Moody and Owen Franks is just too much for the Lions’ Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong despite some real heroics from the Lions duo on this tour. New Zealand’s Codie Taylor has really caught the eye at Hooker and while we have been very impressed by Jamie George, Taylor possesses many of the traits that make regular All Black stalwart in the position, Dane Coles, so devastating especially in attack. The second row partnership of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock still is without equal in our opinion despite the result last weekend. Maro Itoje was tremendous for the Lions but also attracted the attention of the referee far too much for our liking in Wellington. Consequently for us 1-5 is still weighted heavily in favor of New Zealand for this Saturday’s match up. In the back rows though we really liked what we saw from the Lions in Wellington. Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien were exceptionally effective at the breakdown and really got under the skin of New Zealand, while Taulupe Faletau was outstanding at number eight and clearly got the better of New Zealand’s Kieran Read. We very much doubt that the trio of Read, Jerome Kaino and Sam Cane, are likely to be as out of sorts as they were in Wellington – to say that revenge will be on the minds of these three exceptionally talented and very physical gentlemen is an understatement. Consequently although Warburton and company are likely to give as good as they get for the Lions, we hand the advantage to the All Blacks overall up front in Auckland tomorrow.
The half back battle tomorrow should once again prove fascinating. The Lions Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton got the measure of New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett last weekend and stand a good chance of doing so again this Saturday. However, with so much to play for in front of a home crowd, as talented as the Lions duo are, coupled with the fact that they are teammates at Test level for Ireland, the New Zealand duo are unlikely to be as off the pace as they were last weekend. In short an even contest here, with Barrett’s remarkable skill set just giving New Zealand the edge on what should be a drier and consequently pacier pitch.
In the backs, it’s experimentation time for New Zealand as they are denied the use of Sonny Bill Williams due to suspension, and Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith due to injury. The wings see the return of Julian Savea, and while this player is potentially one of New Zealand’s biggest threats we still feel that his form of late has still been hit and miss. When on form he is truly unstoppable but if the Lions can get the measure of him, they have the potential to negate whatever threat he may pose, however we’re not sure Anthony Watson is the man to do it if Savea finds his groove tomorrow. Much the same could be said of Savea’s colleague on the opposite wing Israel Dagg. We thought he had a poor game by his considerably high standards last weekend and the Lions Elliot Daly clearly got the better of him especially under the high ball, and to be honest we expect to see no change here tomorrow. In the centres though it’s danger all round from New Zealand. Despite their relative lack of Test Caps, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape spell trouble from the opening whistle. Ever since his debut last year we have been huge fans of Lienert-Brown and think he is a real threat on attack and defence. Laumape also shows some real strength and skill so expect some fireworks from this newcomer. Although we think the Lions Jonathan Davies is having a stellar tour at centre and has been one of their best players, we are not convinced that outside the England setup, the Lions’ Owen Farrell is working as well or effectively as he could at number 12. As a result we see some dominance by the All Blacks as the order of the day tomorrow in this area of the park. Lastly at fullback we are relishing the opportunity to see Beauden Barrett’s younger brother Jordie get his first All Black cap. He has shown that he has many of the extraordinary skills possessed by his brother, and we expect him to form quite the dynamic and potentially unstoppable duo with Beauden on Saturday. The Lions’ Liam Williams has still scored one of the best tries of the series in the opening Test and he will need to draw on all his experience to contain the unknown X-factor of his All Black opposite Jordie Barrett, but despite his lack of Test experience we’re giving the Kiwi the edge here.
The benches look evenly matched for tomorrow’s encounter, though we still just give the Lions’ the slight advantage here, despite it being really hard to gauge their effectiveness from last weekend as they were hardly used. However, once unleashed last Saturday in Wellington New Zealand replacement scrum half TJ Perenara and flanker Ardie Savea looked absolutely lethal and the Lions will have to draw on every last ounce of reserve to keep these two at bay in the final quarter. In short we think the Lions will hold their own for the first hour, but eventually bodies will tire and discipline will slip against a much more highly tuned and clinical All Black onslaught than what we saw last weekend in Wellington. A riveting contest should be in the making but one in which the All Blacks will ultimately regain the kind of composure and dominance they are so used to finding in the final quarter coupled to their legendary finishing skills. We’d love to see the history books rewritten for the good of the global game, but feel that the challenge facing a brave and highly motivated Lions side is just too big and consequently the All Blacks to seal the series 2-1 by 11 points!