Strange sport, rugby. Purveyors of its best brand and keepers of its finest exponents for years, the All Blacks have been able to bestride the global game’s landscape like rugby gods, shrouded in mystique and an aura of invincibility.
If cracks appeared from time to time they would surface far away from their Mount Olympus on the Land of the Long White Cloud and be suitably rendered in time for the journey home.
It may come to pass that this will always be the way when it comes to talk of New Zealand’s greatest export but for now, the seeds of doubt have been planted in their own backyard and the Lions appear determined to let them grow.
Tomorrow morning’s third Test is a remarkable thing to relish given the rugby of the last two weeks and particularly the events of last Saturday in Wellington.
Not only did the Lions beat the All Blacks, subjecting the world champions to a first defeat on home soil in eight years, but they did so by playing the more exciting style of rugby and scoring not just more tries than their hosts but more attractive ones.
What is more, as the series decider at Eden Park looms large, it is the New Zealand coach Steve Hansen who appears to mixing up his selection to deal with the Lions rather than the other way around. As a great philosopher never asked, who’d have thunk it?
It has taken Lions boss Warren Gatland a little by surprise. This is the Kiwi head coach of the touring side pilloried in one newspaper after the first-Test defeat, also at Eden Park, as a coach who was “desperate”, “dumb and reckless” and about to leave New Zealand with “less respect than when he arrived”.
For added measure, you will remember, that day’s paper carried a caricature of Gatland as a red-nosed, sad clown.
Now the men in black appear to have lost a touch of their aura, and Eden Park’s reputation as a fortress will be a little less intimidating to this super confident pride of Lions.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve got them on the ropes but we’ve definitely got to keep our momentum pushing forward on the back of a victory at the weekend, which gives us confidence,” wing Anthony Watson said as Gatland announced an unchanged matchday squad for the decider, the first time a Lions head coach has had that luxury with a starting XV since Ian McGeechan in 1993.
“We’re definitely going to push forward and build on it.”
‘Desperate’ Warren must be delighted at the turn of events and the confidence coursing through his players, though not enough to sleepwalk into the All Blacks’ den tomorrow assuming a series victory is assured.
“Mystique is definitely not lost. But it’s kind of like how the All Blacks are going into games not worried about the opposition, just going to pick their own team, play their own game and worry about themselves. That’s what we have been doing.
“They’ve looked like they have picked a team initially to stop our defensive line speed, maybe picked a team now to stop our 10-12 combination (of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell).
“They’ve changed their game plan and style. I see that as a massive sign of respect from them to us, them looking at us, negating our strengths and threats and that’s a positive. Hopefully we leave on Saturday having earned the respect of the New Zealand public and secured the future of the Lions.”
There is also a feeling in the Lions camp that as much as they are braced for the sort of backlash Hansen’s players unleashed on Ireland in Dublin a fortnight after being beaten in Chicago, there is also much more to come from this Test side of many talents.
“We still don’t think we’re at our best, we still think we can improve,” Gatland said.
“Obviously there’s going to be an improvement in the All Blacks but it’s something we don’t think is going to be a shock to us.
“Rory Best spoke earlier in the week about how the Irish felt they didn’t handle the physicality that the All Blacks brought in the game two weeks after the Chicago game, even though they’d spoken about it.
“We’re ready for it. I think they’re going to dominate us up front, particularly in the tight five, and try and give some of their inexperienced backs some go forward. If they don’t get that advantage up front — and we’re aware of making sure we try and negate the threat of their tight five — it should make the game interesting.”
It took a set of players genuinely desperate to stay alive in this series to produce a performance of the intensity required to beat the world champions on their home soil last weekend, not to mention the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams and some poor goal-kicking from Beauden Barrett, whose three missed penalties proved costly.
Yet, despite the extra man, the Lions almost blew their chance of victory with a third quarter of extraordinary ill-discipline which cannot be repeated.
Yet Gatland’s men will also have to be equally intense and physical this time around, if not more, not to bounce back from defeat but to kick on from a famous victory. It sounds like a very different dynamic but the head coach is confident that level can be reached. And while previous Lions tours have seen teams leave content with a single Test win but a series defeat, there is no suggestion of a similar mindset in this 2017 squad.
“I haven’t witnessed that. I hope I don’t see it on Saturday night because that would be pretty disappointing. There’s a group of players there who are incredibly competitive and realise this is a massive opportunity to win a series in New Zealand,” Gatland said.
“It doesn’t come round very often. These Irish players who played in Chicago know what it was like two weeks later; They’ve another chance to make sure they don’t get caught with their pants down.”
There has only been one set of Lions from the 11 that toured New Zealand to have finished the job and won a series here. Gatland’s men have the belief they can join those heroes of 1971, now they have to go out and execute.
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