Head coach Gatland last night did something he has for months guarded against when his thoughts turned to the final game of a brutal 10-game tour schedule by naming an unchanged starting line-up and replacements bench for the third and final Test.
Only five players have been forced out of the 41-man squad through injury over the past six weeks, Ireland centre Jared Payne the most recent of them on Thursday after suffering from a migraine and while there is huge element of good fortune in the fitness profile of this group, Gatland will take some satisfaction that his planning efforts have been rewarded through to the very last game. For all the flak he received over the so-called Geography Six, the half-dozen players drafted in purely as largely unused bench cover for the final two midweek tour games, to be able to name an unchanged matchday 23 for the most important match of the lot is kudos to the management of this squad.
Tour skipper Sam Warburton retains the Test captaincy after that momentous 24-21 victory over 14-man New Zealand in Wellington last week and will lead the same men into the All Blacks’ Eden Park fortress, the first time since 1993 that the Lions have kept the same XV for consecutive Tests.
“It is not very often on a Lions Tour that you get to pick the same 23 for the following game,” Gatland said.
“It’s probably a reflection of the performance in the second Test, the result, the win, the courage that we showed in coming from behind at 18-9 down and then getting ourselves out of it and then finishing strongly in that last 10 or 15 minutes.” Despite facing an All Blacks side playing with a man down following the red card issued to Sonny Bill Williams after 25 minutes, it was the Lions’ indiscipline, most noticeably in the third quarter which had led to the tourists trailing by nine points with Mako Vunipola in the sin bin going into the final phase of the game. Yet the Lions rallied in fine style with tries from Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray before strong defence kept the home side out at the death.
“There was a sending off but Faletau’s try was when we were both down to 14 men and I thought we finished pretty strongly,” Gatland added as he also reflected on a three-night detour to Queenstown which gave the players two days of rest and recovery in New Zealand’s Southern Alps before returning to the training field in the mountain resort on Wednesday.
After flying back to Auckland to complete preparations for the Lions’ bid to emulate the 1971 squad as the only previous series winners in New Zealand, Gatland said he felt the plan for some downtime away from it all would benefit his players ahead of the furious response expected from the All Blacks, who despite a rejigged backline will be captained once again by No.8 Kieran Read on his 100th Test appearance.
“This week has been about having a couple of days off earlier in the week and then training Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and making sure we cover the stuff we need to cover. At the end of a long season, we need to go into the game feeling fresh and energetic and then build on the second Test.
“We’re expecting a backlash from the All Blacks in terms of wanting to stamp themselves on the match, in terms of physicality and dominance there. We’re all aware of the challenge and what a big game it is. We still feel like there’s another level in us and we know we’re going to have to go up another level even to match the All Blacks at Eden Park on Saturday.
“This is a huge chance for this group of players to show their abilities and reap the benefits of the work everyone has put in. It is their chance to make Lions history.”
Lions kicking coach Neil Jenkins said he believed the Lions will have to kick better tactically if they are to get their reward and become the first Test side since 1998 to inflict a second home defeat in a row on the All Blacks. The records already tumbled following the second-Test victory last week in the Wellington rain as the Lions earned a first away win on New Zealand soil for any team since the South Africans in 2008 but Gatland and his coaching staff felt aside from poor discipline, that territorial kicking was a big area for improvement with more rain expected on matchday in Auckland and Steve Hansen making more changes to his back three, naming Jordie Barrett at full-back for his first Test start.
“We’ve got to improve our accuracy in kicking out of hand,” Jenkins said. “Conor Murray got one wrong, but that’s probably his first mistake all tour. It shows he’s human but he’s an exceptional player.
“I think Gats has said it before, there’s a couple of things we want to put in place, seen on Saturday.
“That would have been done (on Wednesday). A little bit of coaching but not a great deal.
“It’s more letting the boys take over. They’re playing the game, they are the ones on the pitch. Hopefully that’s the way forward, and the way the players want it as well.”
There had been on slight injury concern to address before finalising selection with full back Liam Williams satisfying medics he was good to go after finishing Wednesday’s training session early after feeling tightness in his leg.
That came after Ireland’s Payne had been told he would play no further part in the tour. The Ulster star had remained in Wellington for tests after reporting with a headache before the Hurricanes game nine days ago.
“While the findings of Jared’s tests have been normal he still has a migraine and will not be fit to train until his symptoms have settled. The specialists are happy that the symptoms are not concussion-related and he is expected to recover fully.”