There’s not much riding on Eden Park tomorrow only immortality for a group of lads from Britain and Ireland, writes Ronan O’Gara.
We are all guilty at times of over-egging the importance of one game, but in terms of putting down a marker for northern hemisphere rugby, in terms of making this part of the world the market leader for the ambitious player, in terms of the pure dollars of the thing, a Lions series win over New Zealand, the reigning world champions, would be monumental.
The 1997 Lions, with the help of the media machine that is Sky Sports, became heroes and movie stars. Living with the Lions became a brand in itself, but turning around a first Test defeat to win a series in New Zealand would be on a different level altogether. How different? Perhaps 25% bigger than winning a series in either of the other two southern hemisphere outposts.
And crucially, the pressure is completely off them in one key aspect: They have shown that the gap between All Black rugby and the best of Britain and Ireland is not the chasm we feared it was. Last Saturday in Wellington, leaving aside the Sonny Bill Williams sending-off, underlined that this group of tourists can survive at New Zealand’s high altitude of rugby excellence.
Not that the All Blacks were anywhere near their suffocating Saturday best. Lost in the hoopla over the Lions’ fourth-quarter comeback is that New Zealand blew an 18-9 lead. And that Aaron Cruden failed to see that game out for the Blacks at 10 when Steve Hansen had, for the second week running, pushed Beauden Barrett to full-back.
We don’t know whether not having the world player of the year at out-half cost the All Blacks in the end. There is no gainsaying Barrett’s right to his reputation, but most of his games at 10, in fairness, are armchair rides, when his side is in the ascendancy.
Last Saturday would have been a massive feather in his cap had he guided 14-man New Zealand to a 2-0 series lead, but he didn’t manage that for one reason (the question mark over his ability to control a game) or the other (being repositioned to 15, which was outside his control). His goal-kicking is viewed as average, and he did little to dispel that accusation in the Cake Tin.
Racing 92 returned to pre-season training this week and I had an interesting conversation with Joe Rokocoko about leadership. He noted that in the pressure moments of the second Test, the Lions were dotted with leaders — Wyn-Jones, the entire back-row, Davies, Farrell, Sexton, and Murray. Then he named the coterie of leaders that New Zealand rugby has lost in recent times — from Carter to McCaw, from Nonu to Mealamu. After the loss of Sonny Bill Williams as well, there was a sense, he felt, that the All Blacks ran on autopilot for a while, but when the Lions cranked it up late on, were there enough leaders in black?
The issue of how well they managed the game in the last quarter is a very interesting one. It’s unlikely they switched off because All Blacks teams do not do that. But Cruden made a serious error on the left hand touchline when he took Liam Williams out off the ball and gave up 70m of territory as a result. He also missed the Williams counter-attack tackle in Auckland that led to Sean O’Brien’s try. Cruden, who is on a plane to Montpellier as soon as the series is done, looks like a lad struggling with his game at the moment. That error last Saturday gave a massive energy boost to the Lions. Barrett may have some issues over him still, but New Zealand are far better with him at ten to see a game through.
While Steve Hansen has made three changes, including the introduction of Julian Savea and Jordie Barrett, the Lions have handed the jerseys back to the men they entrusted with them last week. Good call. Mako Vunipola might have been sweating a bit, but he won’t ever have as bad a day as he did in Wellington. The English prop is one of the key cogs in the Lions machine, someone who is at ease carrying the ball. They will need him tomorrow. Of course, he has had a word in his shell this week about discipline, but would Mako have needed that in the circumstances? Hardly.
Warren Gatland and his management had a good day last Saturday, and quick as I would be to point out the possible allegiance to his Welsh players, Sam Warburton was an outstanding captain on the day. Jonathan Davies merits mention too, not for any question mark over his selection, but for his sheer efficiency and consistency at 13. He never makes a mistake on defence and even on a bad day, he’s extremely solid in attack.
While all the momentum is with the Lions, it would be irresponsible to overlook the fact they found themselves in a hole despite a man advantage for almost an hour. Had they lost last Saturday the Lions would have been slated, and deservedly so. But the last 15 minutes was exceptional, and that takes a lot of character. Not words, character. That it is self-evident the tourists are really playing for each other means it might get overlooked, but it shouldn’t. Every Lions tour rises or falls on the chemistry in the group, and there appears to be few problems in that regard this time.
Murray’s decisive try illustrated perfectly why Gatland was prepared to go with the Farrell-Sexton combination in the second test. Farrell ran a brilliant line behind Jamie George, Johnny gave the pass to George who found the gap and the Lions scored off the next phase, the All Black centre Ngani Laumape completely over-reading the play.
The Munster nine and his friends may never have to approach a bar counter again if they can repeat the feat tomorrow. As a player, you are not thinking of the ripple effect of a series win, but there’s no question it would take the game in Europe to a whole new level. I’d imagine the players in New Zealand would be thinking very differently about those lucrative contracts on the table from teams in this part of the world. More and more players are ready to see what it’s all about in Europe.
Australia is in the doldrums, South Africa is on the ground even after a series win against France. England and Ireland are looking to be in the medals at the minute when it comes to luring the best to Europe.
The British and Irish Lions have the opportunity to take down the best team in the world in their own back yard over three Tests having gone 1-0 down. That doesn’t just come around once every 12 years. That moment presents itself once in a lifetime.
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