We have ourselves a showdown. The expectation of most was that by the end of last Saturday’s second test, the British and Irish Lions would be dead and buried and this final test would offer no more than a chance to leave New Zealand with a modicum of respect.
However, Sonny Bill William’s red card left New Zealand’s best-laid plans in tatters and the Lions came away with a crucial victory to level the series. That said, the Lions certainly made damn hard work of it and at times seemed to be doing the best to confound the huge advantage gifted to them by the All Blacks centre’s moment of madness. 13 penalties and 39% possession will undermine even the most valiant of efforts.
Let’s focus on the positives first. A win. And a win against New Zealand is massive, no matter the circumstances. The Kiwis haven’t lost at home in nearly eight years, and even more impressive, have not been rendered try-less on New Zealand soil for 15 years.
The Lions defence was fantastic. The perceived wisdom was that with Ben Te’o withdrawn and the relatively untested, not to mention lightweight, combination of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, the All Blacks’ big ball carriers would make inroads down the centre. Although they certainly made some yards, ultimately the defence creaked but didn’t break – partly thanks to some canny deployment of Sean O’Brien (my man-of-the-match) in the midfield. Across the two matches, the Lions defence has limited the All Blacks’ backs to an average of 3.7 clean breaks and 11.2 defenders beaten per game. They managed an average of 11 clean breaks and 17.4 defenders beaten in 2016.
Also I thought the back three did a sterling job given the horrendous weather. There were a few balls knocked on but in general their positioning was excellent and they managed to counter New Zealand’s dangerous kicking game. That Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden looked ineffective with that part of their game was as much down to Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly’s work off the ball, as some miscued kicks.
Then when the rare attacking opportunities came, the Lions were clinical. Alongside ‘discipline’, ‘clinical’ had become the frustrated buzzword of Lions supporters post-match. Not this time – two opportunities, two tries. The combo of Sexton and Farrell showed its value in those scores, the two flyhalves’ varied passing game and vision exploited the rare half-chances when they came around and were integral to victory.
Now the negatives. This was 15 v 14 for much of the match and when a red card is shown that early, the expectation is the full team will walk away victorious. We know that is not always the case, and when the team is New Zealand, it is still a huge mountain to climb, however, what disappointed me is the Lions took their foot off the gas for a while. Did they suddenly assume it was an inevitability they would win as 15 must beat 14? When victory didn’t come as quickly as expected I felt a degree of panic set in; that period in the second half (led by Mako Vunipola seemingly losing the plot) when they conceded four penalties was panicked rugby at its most infuriating. It really needed a cool head to grab the players together and bring some structure to the game – it was a moment for leaders like Sexton, Farrell and the captain Warburton to earn their keep.
We also have to mention Barrett’s off day with the kicking – three eminently kickable penalties wasted. Now, Barrett is not a world-class kicker; it is a sacrifice New Zealand have made for his supreme talent with the ball in hand, and cannot be an ‘excuse’ for the loss – it is a tactical decision they have made, and he will sometimes leave kicking points on the field. However, I certainly wouldn’t bet on it happening two weeks in a row. The Lions have seemingly sorted the ‘clinical’ problem. Now they need to sort the discipline problem. Otherwise there won’t be a game to win in the final five minutes.
The two team sheets for this Saturday are both surprising. Firstly, with the Lions, it is because Warren Gatland has named an unchanged squad (the first time for a Lions test team since 1993). Popular wisdom suggested Vunipola should be demoted for his reckless disregard for the referee’s whistle, while Alun Wyn Jones (although much improved) was still not as good as Courtney Lawes. Gatland has ignored all that and stuck to his guns. With reflection I think it is the right call – continuity will reinforce the confidence earned by the win, while they will cast an eye over at the New Zealand team selection and think ‘we have got them worried’.
That is because Steve Hansen has gone with some curve-ball selections. Ngani Laumape may not be particularly surprising as he did well when replacing Sonny Bill Williams, but he is still raw and can be guilty of defensive mistakes. The Lions will look to exploit that and I thought they would reunite the more experienced combo of Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa.
The Kiwi back three is a different matter. Israel Dagg continues his yo-yoing between fullback and wing as he returns to the 14 shirt, while the formidable ‘bus’ Julian Savea returns on the left wing. However, the man with the best strike rate in international rugby has hardly been in sparkling form recently so it is a surprise to see Rieko Ioane dropped for him.
The biggest shock is at fullback, with a third Barrett brother, Jordie, getting his first test start. What a time to be parachuted into the starting line-up – on the back of a incredibly rare loss on home soil, the fans baying for blood and facing the best of the northern hemisphere. Barrett has shown in Super Rugby that he can be a deadly player – but this will be another level for him. Expect the Lions to welcome him with an aggressive kicking game; this not a day for nerves in your fullback.
So prediction time. Can the Lions do it again and win the series, a first in New Zealand since 1971? If they are, and it is the biggest of ‘ifs’, they need to sort out their discipline. No more excuses – they cannot rely on a red card and Barrett packing his slippers instead of his kicking boots to give them a chance, they have to take it for themselves.
But there are plenty of reasons to believe – a defence that suffocated the life out of New Zealand, a pack that finally woke up and dictated play at the breakdown, New Zealand putting an international rookie in the 15 shirt when it supposed to rain cats and dogs, while in Sexton and Farrell an emergence of a genuine clinical attacking platform. Also traditionally, Lions teams tend to finish strong: South Africa in 2009, Australia in 2013… the Lions, being a scratch team, can take a while to click, but that ‘click’ has tended to come in the third test.
I pretty much nailed my colours to the mast last week with my prediction, no changing them now. Another tense and supremely physical match won in the most thrilling of fashions.
My prediction: Lions by 3.
Average Superbru prediction: New Zealand by 9.54 (NZ 85%, Lions 15%)
By Henry Ker