Donal Lenihan breaks down three monumental challenges facing the Lions...
1. Beating the weight of history
You just know how big this contest is out here when they categorise tomorrow’s third and final Test as the biggest game New Zealand have played since the 2011 World Cup final at the same venue. The pressure was such that day against France that it almost suffocated the All Blacks.
Getting that World Cup monkey off their backs has served New Zealand rugby well ever since and, mentally, they have gone from strength to strength.
This is different however. The Lions are adored in this part of the world, despite the fact they only have one series win in 11 previous attempts to show for their efforts.
Given the fall off in the quality of their traditional rivals Australia and South Africa in recent times, the New Zealand rugby public crave a new challenge and the Lions have offered that. Tomorrow, however, the touring party will not only have to overcome the might of the All Blacks but also the weight of history to prevail with the odds stacked against them.
It is well documented that New Zealand just don’t lose at Eden Park. It doesn’t help either that the Lions have tasted defeat there twice on Tour already, against the Auckland Blues and New Zealand.
It’s 20 years since the Lions have managed to win two Tests in a row — against the Springbok’s in 1997 — and they have never beaten New Zealand twice in a row. They also haven’t won the final Test of a Lions series in this country since 1959.
What’s rare is wonderful, however. The 1971 Lions are still feted down here for their exploits as the only squad to win a series so history beckons for this group. Win or lose, this is a far superior Lions side to the one that won the series against Australia four years ago.
What they need to do is grasp the fact that they now stand on the threshold of achieving something exceptional. They are within 80 minutes of a life-changing experience, something that will follow them for the rest of their lives.
The players charged with taking on that responsibility tomorrow must grasp the fact that they will never again be presented with this historic opportunity. The manner with which they absorb and handle that reality will play a big part in the outcome.
2. Find a level not yet reached on tour
Recognising the opportunity is one thing, taking it quite another. Everyone knows that there will be a big reaction from the New Zealand camp to what happened in Wellington last weekend. The soundbites emanating from their squad paint a picture of a desperate squad stunned into action.
The reality of the situation is that, forced to play with only 14 men for 55 minutes, their seven-man pack still put in a massive shift and produced enough ball to win the game. The fact they didn’t can be put down to some poor decision making behind the scrum and the failure of Beauden Barrett to convert three kickable penalties.
The restructured Lions back-row did enjoy a marked improvement at the breakdown but with Jerome Kaino withdrawn after the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams to enable the uncapped Ngani Laumape fill the void in midfield, the excellent Kieran Reid and San Cane were left completely overworked yet almost did enough to inspire an unlikely victory.
With Kaino back in harness from the outset, the Lions will have to lift their performance in the contact area to even higher levels. In fact, to win the game and the series, that applies right across the board. This group of players will, both individually and collectively, have to reach heights never achieved by them before.
With 12 players starting their third consecutive test and a completely unchanged matchday squad from the one that triumphed in Wellington, this Lions side is primed to peak at precisely the right time.
Ironically it is New Zealand who are forced into change with a different midfield combination starting for the third time in the series and a rookie at full-back in Jordie Barrett.
At first glance, the Lions backline has a more familiar and stable look about them than New Zealand’s but there is a strong Hurricanes presence across that All Black unit which will be a help to Jordie Barrett and Laumape in their first Test starts.
Julian Savea is also back in harness with something to prove but much will depend on how much pressure the Lions can exert on the Test rookies in weather conditions that are once again set to be challenging.
3. Back attacking ability with ball in hand
The daily attacks and vitriol surrounding the perceived negative play that followed the Lions in the games leading up to the first Test seem dead in the water now. That changed from the moment Liam Williams chose to sidestep Kieran Reid, five metres from his own goal line, in a manner former Llanelli great Phil Bennett would surely have approved of.
Ninety metres down the track and Sean O’Brien is finishing off one of the greatest tries in Lions Test history. The tourists continued in that vein with some dazzling handling and offloading in the 31-31 draw against the Hurricanes, a game they would surely have won only for the mismanagement of their bench.
Given the appalling weather conditions on the night, it was no surprise to see the Lions revert to type with their kicking game dominating for long periods of the second Test. The only problem here was their execution was well below par, creating more problems than tangible benefits.
It didn’t help either that the Lions rediscovered the art of giving away stupid penalties that on another day would have proved far more costly. For 60 minutes they did everything in their power to lose the game themselves, despite the numerical advantage enjoyed.
It was only in the final quarter, when they found themselves nine points in arrears, that they set out to back themselves with ball in hand.
The twin attacking axis of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell grasped the bull by the horns and finally choose to put width on the ball. All of a sudden, holes started to appear in the New Zealand defensive line.
Two spectacular tries in 10 minutes served to turn this fascinating series on its head. The Lions proved that they have players with the pace, handling, and stepping ability to score tries against this New Zealand side.
To have any chance of winning tomorrow they need to back themselves in that regard and not wait until they are potentially left chasing the game in the closing 20 minutes. To win they must be bold. That doesn’t mean taking on New Zealand at their game but recognising that they have it in their armoury to score tries against them.
New Zealand now have a full appreciation of where the strengths of this Lions side are. As anticipated, the visitors have proved rock solid at the set-piece and in defence but their ability to deliver tries at key moments has caught New Zealand cold. Perhaps the All Blacks won the opening Test too easily and that, coupled with the red card for Williams, left them with too much to do last weekend.
New Zealand rarely repeat their mistakes and are unlikely to be caught twice. Against the odds, the Lions have brought this series to the wire. The weather and their ability to score tries will keep the Lions in the hunt but history suggests they will end up just short.
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