So, the eagerly awaited third and final test is nearly upon us. The Lions have enjoyed a spot of R’n’R in Queenstown in keeping with the downtime that they have had on recent tours between the second and third tests. All this has been designed to relax and refresh the players, to clear their mind and take off some pressure before the huge challenge that awaits them back at Eden Park on Saturday.
Meanwhile we hear that the All Blacks have been going for it hard on the practice pitch as they hone their preparations. Losing twice in a row would simply be unheard of and not something that they or the New Zealand public could possibly contemplate. The circus characters depicted by the New Zealand press would no longer be of the Lions Head Coach if that did happen.
So, what have we learned from the second test and what bearing will this have on the third test?
One thing is for certain, no two matches are ever the same and rarely can anyone predict what might happen. What we do know is that it’s unlikely that the weather will be as atrocious as it was in Wellington and secondly it’s extremely unlikely that the All Blacks will have a player sent off after the first quarter. Lightning rarely strikes twice.
However, in the second text, the Lions played what was in front of them and the horrendous conditions, eventually adapted to them both and despite some very poor play, particularly in the third quarter, finally came through in the last 15 minutes to win. When it came to it, they showed calmness and patience, some good skills with the ball in hand, and scored two fantastic tries. It was all about the win, which they ultimately deserved and will give them huge confidence going into the final test match.
The Lions selection has unsurprisingly remained exactly the same, even though many were predicting that Mako Vinupola might lose his place after his potentially costly indiscipline and yellow card in the second test. The management have clearly decided that he’s the best man for the position, as they had done prior to the first two tests, but this time he will be sent into battle with a loud word in his ear telling him to keep calm and stay disciplined otherwise he will be immediately hauled off. Gatland’s other potentially contentious selections for the second test, such as Sexton and Farrell in the 10-12 axis, worked well and it is doubtful whether the two tries would have been scored if T’eo had been playing as his distribution skills probably do not compare to those of Farrell or Sexton, who were quite interchangeable throughout. That said T’eo remains on the bench, quite rightly, and can be called upon if required to add muscle and power to the midfield. Similarly, Alan-Wyn Jones didn’t let anyone down in the second row and his experience, allied to his work around the pitch and in the line out, proved extremely valuable for 50-60 minutes before Lawes was able to add more pace and power in the final quarter.
It is the All Blacks who have forced into changes and interestingly the tall Jordie Barrett has been called up at full back with two new wingers, Israel Dagg, who has been moved from full back, and the return of the awesome free scoring Julian Savea. Arguably this All Black back line looks stronger now than the previous test and they are sure to cause the Lions problems.
The All Blacks will be incredibly fired up playing again at their spiritual home at Eden Park. The Lions won’t know what’s hit them in the opening exchanges and they will need to be ready for it. They must expect an onslaught like they’ve never experienced before and will just need to tackle like demons, match fire with fire, keep their discipline and keep fully focused at all times. If they switch off, even if for only a few moments, they may end up letting the All Blacks in for a couple of quick tries and it could be game over before they know it.
The Lions just need to stay in the game, keep their discipline and shape, and frustrate the All Blacks with their high press, give them no room to play and then impose their own game. Their kicking needs to be far more accurate, both box kicking and kicking towards the corners. They certainly cannot afford to give the All Blacks easy ball from uncontested kicks in open play as the All Blacks could cause havoc with the talent that they have at their disposal.
Furthermore, the Lions need to be rock solid in the set piece and play their own game. They cannot afford to take risks with speculative off loads in close quarters but, if they win quick ball after several phases, they must try and make those opportunities count with the skill of their own half backs and talented pacy three quarters, who have shown what they can do with ball in hand if given some space and width.
It really is a mouthwatering prospect. A battle royal awaits and whilst the All Blacks will be strong favourites again, and quite rightly so, the Lions now have belief and should not be completely discounted. They have a team that contains winners and they will be mightily determined to prove everyone wrong yet again. The rugby world awaits……..