The ecstasy of the British Lions’ dramatic 24-21 victory over New Zealand in the second test in Wellington may still be in the system of those that have trekked half way around the globe to support their team. However, the come down could be just as intense as the All Blacks look to prove their narrow defeat last week was only a temporary high for Warren Gatland’s team.
A backlash is predicted by many, and it’s easy to see why.
The morning after the night before might have brought much debate and dissection from the local press as to how and why Steve Hansen’s side lost, but for me the answer is simple; keep it 15 versus 15 and there’s no doubt New Zealand would have won.
That’s not to say Sonny Bill Williams shouldn’t have been sent off, of course he should have – and his ban of four weeks looks inexplicably short. But to suggest the Lions would have been any closer to winning if Williams had kept his head seems delusional.
It is worth re-iterating that the hosts played 55 minutes with 14 players and they were only behind for the final two.
Naturally, the red card shown to the All Blacks star overshadowed the Lions own ill-discipline. The tourists conceded 13 penalties, while Mako Vunipola was sent to the sin bin and Sean O’Brien was cited for a lunge at Waisake Naholo.
A similar lack of self-control this weekend will surely see the Lions punished.
Having failed to score a try in a test at home for the first time since 1998 (against South Africa), the All Blacks will be fired up like never before. The New Zealand public demand success from their team and they should get the win that will see them clinch the series 2-1.
Team tweaks positive for New Zealand
In the past, Warren Gatland has never been shy of altering his team line-up, so it is intriguing that he has gone with the 15 that won in Wellington.
It is the first time since 1993 the Lions have kept the same starting side for consecutive tests. New Zealand do make changes, though, with Jordie Barrett coming in at full-back, Julian Savea recalled on the left wing and Ngani Laumape taking over at 12 from the suspended Sonny Bill Williams.
The alterations have given the hosts a little more physicality in their back-line and, in what is sure to be a battle, that is no bad thing.
But the crucial change could be the inclusion of Jordie Barrett, the younger brother of fly-half Beauden. The older sibling missed three crucial penalties in the second test for the All Blacks and Jordie, despite having just 17 minutes of test rugby to his name, might be asked to take responsibility from the tee in Auckland.
In club rugby this season Jordie landed 30 kicks from 40 (75%), with Beauden converting 18 from 29 (62%) as they shared duties for the Hurricanes.
The Lions defence has been outstanding in restricting New Zealand to less than two tries on average per game and the final test could easily come down to who can kick under pressure and with more accuracy.
Owen Farrell, of course, has the experience, but if the Lions give up as many penalties as they did in Wellington, then the hosts will have many more opportunities to put points on the board via the boot.
Eden Park fortress to retain its aura
The Lions’ shot at winning a series in New Zealand for the first time in 46 years could not have come at a tougher venue.
The All Blacks haven’t lost at Eden Park since 1994 and the numbers associated with their 37 straight victories in the professional era are astonishing – even for a team used to winning.
France were the last away team to be successful there, Sean Fitzpatrick scoring the only home try as New Zealand went down 23-20 to Les Bleus. Since then, the All Blacks have scored 1,319 points conceding just 510, while averaging four tries a game in the process.
The conditions are often wet, with swirling winds affecting play, a handicap that New Zealander kickers are far more comfortable with due to their experience of playing there.
Steve Hansen has overseen 66 wins from 71 tests in his time as coach. He will not want to be the man in charge of a team that loses New Zealand’s proud record at a venue seen as their spiritual home.
Odds makers offer little hope of upset
Only twice before have the Lions fought back from losing the first test to claim a series victory, both of which came against Australia – back in 1899 and 1989.
Warren Gatland’s team are 33/10 to win the final test and re-write the record books. The bookmakers are always a good barometer of where any team truly ranks, and the fact that the odds compilers make the All Blacks 11/50 favourites to win in Auckland should give the locals plenty of confidence ahead of the decider.
The layers, in fact, make New Zealand as short as 17/25 to win by eight points or more, such is the strong sense that Steve Hansen’s side will dominate from front to back on Saturday.
The most competitive handicap mark offers the tourists at 17/20 with an 11.5-point start (with the hosts 19/20), but it’s worth remembering that the first test between the two teams, also played at Eden Park, saw the All Blacks win by 15 points, and I expect something similar this time around.
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