Lions Seal Date With Destiny The Big Picture

Lions Seal Date With Destiny

Owen Farrell's penalty three minutes from time capped a remarkable comeback as the British and Irish Lions beat New Zealand 24-21 in Wellington last Saturday morning to set up a series decider at Eden Park this weekend.

History now beckons for the tourists following a brave-hearted display at the Cake Tin as they seek to become the first visiting side to complete a series victory on New Zealand soil since the legendary 1971 Lions did so some 46 years ago.

It’s a mouth-watering prospect, but one that looked highly unlikely following the first test just under a fortnight ago which the All Blacks dominated from the start. They cruised to a 30-15 victory at Eden Park courtesy of a brace from winger Rieko Ioane, who has somewhat surprisingly been dropped for the final test in favour of Julian Savea. A last minute Rhys Webb try put an undeserved gloss on the scoreboard for the visitors who were second-best in every department.

It was a different story in the pouring rain of Wellington, however, as the Lions took the game to their hosts, flooding the midfield (excuse the pun!) and not allowing the All Blacks to execute the trademark offloads that have proven so devastating for them in recent times. It was clear that Warren Gatland and the Lions coaching staff had learned some lessons from the first test and were determined to compete in the key areas of the pitch.


Red card

It’s worth saying that the All Blacks have not played particularly well in this series so far. The truth is that they haven’t had to. They rarely got out of first gear in the opening test, but upped their game as necessary to inflict decisive wounds on the visitors. It looked like the second test was set to go the same way before fate intervened on 24 minutes in the form of a reckless Sonny Bill Williams shoulder charge on Anthony Watson. The dismissal of the powerhouse centre should have been the turning point of the game, but it wasn't until the final quarter that the Lions began to exert any kind of meaningful pressure. Indeed, it looked for long periods that the game might get away from them, despite their man advantage.

Williams became just the second All Black in history to be red-carded and the first in 50 years since Colin Meads was dismissed for dangerous play against Scotland at Murrayfield back in 1967. That transgression was deemed relatively innocuous at the time for a player with such a fearsome reputation, with the Daily Telegraph famously remarking that it was a bit like ‘sending a burglar to jail for a parking offence’. Few, I suspect, would venture to be so kind to Williams who set out to cause his opponent serious injury and has been duly sanctioned.


Williams has been banned for four weeks and will miss the decider on Saturday which is a major blow to the home side. Much of their play goes through the big centre who is used as a first contact battering ram to punch holes in opposition defences. However, in debutant Ngane Laumape, they showed that they have a very effective replacement. He is set to start the decider and the Lions will need to have a plan in place to counter his influence if they hope to win the game. Otherwise, it will be a case of so near and yet so far.

Indiscipline


Gatland's decision to play Jonathan Sexton at ten and Owen Farrell at twelve was vindicated as the Irish out-half was instrumental in both tries. He has opted for the same combination again for Saturday in an unchanged squad. The pair combined well and have the play-making chops to impose themselves on the contest if they get the time and space. Whether they will be afforded that luxury this Saturday remains to be seen.

The biggest issue facing the Lions from last week is indiscipline. They conceded 13 penalties in Wellington and would surely have lost the game but for some errant kicking from Beauden Barrett who spurned a number of decent opportunities to put the All Blacks out of sight. They won’t be afforded the same luxury on Saturday.


Prop Mako Vunipola was fortunate not to get a red card last weekend and his selection for the decider is a major risk. His challenge on a prone Barrett for which he received a yellow card was both reckless and cowardly. The England international had already gifted six points to the All Blacks for earlier infringements and is extremely fortunate to retain his place ahead of Jack McGrath who is named on the bench once again.

There is no doubt that the All Blacks let the Lions off the hook last Saturday. The series should already be wrapped up, but a combination of the early red card, poor kicking and, it must be said, some top quality handling from the visitors means that everything is still to play for. If anyone had told Gatland that his side would concede 13 penalties and have a man in the bin for ten minutes, he would naturally have feared the worst. It’s extraordinary that they managed to win the game, but a similar lack of discipline at Eden Park on Saturday and they will not be so lucky. Lightning does not strike twice!

Lions determined


Speaking moments after the final whistle at the Cake Tin, Lions captain Sam Warburton insisted that the focus was already on the final test this weekend. The Welsh wing forward will know better than most just how much work the tourists will need to do if they are to mount a serious challenge at Eden Park.


Sexton, meanwhile, had his eyes on history but acknowledged that it is a tough ask for the tourists. “It’s a huge challenge, but it’s a huge opportunity as well,” he said. “You don’t get many chances to create history in your career, and to turn around a series like this, after going 1-0 down, would go down as one of the greatest Lions performances. We need to view it as an opportunity rather than as a daunting challenge. That is the view we are taking. We have got to go and attack them and give it our best and see where that takes us.”

The scene is now set for an exciting series decider on Saturday. Even without Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand will go into the game as favourites. They haven't been beaten at Eden Park since 1994, but Saturday's result and the way it was achieved playing expansive rugby and scoring two tries could prove priceless in terms of the confidence it will give the tourists.


Sport can be strange sometimes. Few would argue that this has been a good tour to date - with two defeats and some pretty uninspiring performances in the midweek games added to the thumping in the first test – but all will be forgiven if they can win on Saturday.

It took Ireland 111 years to beat New Zealand. Some said it would never happen, but it did. The Lions know that the All Blacks are not invincible. They know they can beat them. It's a chance to write their names into legend. The chance may never come again for these players - this is a career-defining moment. Can they rise to the challenge?

Images: Getty

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