AUCKLAND, New Zealand, Jul 7 – The British and Irish Lions are hoping a beer and bungee jumping jolly will give them an advantage as they face an edgy All Blacks side in a Test match of historic proportions on Saturday.
So much is at stake for both sides, after the Lions’ victory last week put them in a position to clinch only their second series win over New Zealand in 129 years of touring.
With one victory apiece, the All Blacks ramped up training this week to avoid joining the 1971 New Zealand team in losing a series to the Lions.
Reports of scuffles among players during intense training sessions were denied, but flanker Jerome Kaino spoke of a “definite edge” in the camp.
The Lions, by contrast, took time out at the resort town of Queenstown, where they swapped training for a relaxed few days of beers and bungee jumping.
Even when they arrived in Auckland they downplayed their excitement about “the biggest game” of their careers, with captain Sam Warburton saying he was “feeling pretty chilled out”.
“It was good to have that break in Queenstown… Right now I won’t get too excited until match day. You don’t want to waste too much emotional energy over such a big game,” Warburton said.
Despite the tourists’ laid-back approach, Lions assistant coach Neil Jenkins said they knew the magnitude of the task ahead against a wounded All Blacks side.
“It’s a series decider, a World Cup final, whatever you want to label it as. It’s a humungous game. We know how hard it’s going to be,” Jenkins said.
None of the Lions has played in a World Cup final, while the All Blacks retain six of the starting forwards from their World Cup victory in 2015 — but only two backs, Julian Savea and Aaron Smith.
– Hurricane Hansen –
It is the new-look backline that the Lions will be keen to target, with inside centre Ngani Laumape and 20-year-old fullback Jordie Barrett getting their first starts, in only their second Tests.
It is a bold move by coach Steve Hansen, who seems intent on re-igniting the All Blacks’ spark and has turned to the Wellington Hurricanes, who lead the Super Rugby competition for tries and line breaks.
With Barrett, his fly-half brother Beauden, Laumape and Savea there will be four Hurricanes in the All Blacks backs.
The forward pack remains unchanged, and that is where the platform will be laid for the outcome of the Test.
“It’s to be a physical Test, it has to be,” Hansen said.
“Every Test match is won up front. We won the first one up front, they won they second one up front, so whoever wins that battle on the weekend will probably have a smile on their face.”
History is not in the Lions’ favour.
In 11 previous series they have only once won the last Test and that was in 1959. The All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park for 23 years, a run of 38 games.
And having won the last two World Cups, including holding on for an 8-7 win in the titanic 2011 final against France, the All Blacks seem to have shrugged off their former reputation as chokers.
The Lions did, however, take a lot of confidence from the clinical way they came from behind to win the second Test, when their attacking game delivered the only two tries in the match.
Warren Gatland has named an unchanged line-up for the decider, which gives them the ability to mix the astute kick-chase game of Conor Murray with the skills of Owen Farrell should they wish to go wide.
“We know we’ve stressed the All Blacks at times and we’ve scored some great tries,” Gatland said.
“You always want be regarded as a winner and for us the focus is on winning on Saturday and winning the series.”
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett; Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa
Lions: Liam Williams (WAL); Anthony Watson (ENG), Jonathan Davies (WAL), Owen Farrell (ENG), Elliot Daly (ENG); Johnny Sexton (IRL), Conor Murray (/IRL); Taulupe Faletau (ENG), Sean O’Brien (IRL), Sam Warburton (capt, WAL); Alun Wyn Jones (WAL), Maro Itoje (ENG); Tadhg Furlong (IRL), Jamie George (ENG), Mako Vunipola (ENG)
Replacements: Ken Owens (WAL), Jack McGrath (IRL), Kyle Sinckler (ENG), Courtney Lawes (ENG), CJ Stander (IRL), Rhys Webb (WAL), Ben Te’o (ENG), Jack Nowell (ENG)
Referee: Romain Poite (FRA)