Wednesday 22 November 2017

Eden Park factor at play as Hansen cuts Savea for Ioane

Beauden Barrett of New Zealand goes over during against Samoa at the International Test at Eden Park last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Beauden Barrett of New Zealand goes over during against Samoa at the International Test at Eden Park last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The last time the All Blacks failed to win a game at Eden Park, Sean Fitzpatrick was captain and Maro Itoje wasn't even born.

Over the course of the 23 years since South Africa held New Zealand to an 18-all draw in Auckland a year before they would go one better to win their home World Cup, the Kiwis have held 37 Test matches in their spiritual home and won the lot.

It's not like they're too vulnerable away from the capital; they're unbeaten on home soil since 2009 but it is at Eden Park where their aura increases even further.

That record includes a World Cup final victory over France - one of four over Les Bleus who are the last team to win there - as well at 14 victories over Australia, four over England and South Africa and the third Test win against the Lions in 2005.

Dismissive It is the most secure fortress in world rugby and their current 100pc run is way out in front of the 2003 England team's 22 wins at Twickenham.

So, it's probably no surprise that the world champions are playing down the Eden Park factor ahead of Saturday's opening Test.

"Eden Park has always been a special ground for New Zealand rugby as a whole," assistant head coach Ian Foster said this week. "If we are to add to the legacy of Eden Park we are going to have to play well."

Despite the dismissive attitude of the local media, there is a clear sense that the New Zealand rugby fraternity are taking the Lions increasingly seriously.

Hansen has picked close to his strongest and most experienced team possible, with one exception as Rieko Ioane gets the nod for his first All Black start ahead of Julian Savea on the left wing.

The dangerous Ioane has faced the Lions twice already on tour, tormenting them at Eden Park for the Blues but was part of a back-three that struggled for the Maori last Saturday.

The world champions have a defined hierarchy in place and pick accordingly so despite a lack of game-time this season, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read are in the back-row to lead the side.

Like the Saracens-dominated Lions tight-five, the Crusaders have four of the All Blacks' big men along with Brodie Retallick who is quickly attaining all-time-great status; while their half-back pairing of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett is world-leading.

In Sonny Bill Williams, they have a wrecking ball with hands from the gods and outside him there is pace, decision-making and high-ball ability in spades in Israel Dagg. Alongside Williams, Ryan Crotty is fit again and is an important cog in the wheel.

Throw in their bench impact and it's the complete team.

Yet while they have excelled since winning the World Cup, winning all bar one of their games, they have largely been playing against teams in decline. South Africa and Australia have been sliding down the world rankings and replaced by three of the four Lions-contributing countries in the next three positions after the clear No 1.

For all that Foster claimed the tourists' line-speed is nothing new, former All Black Liam Messam - who has faced the Lions twice in the past week - believes they've taken it to a new level.

"The Lions' line-speed on defence is unreal, but the All Blacks have ways to break that down and get in behind.

"They'll have taken a lot out of their last couple of performances against the Maori and the Chiefs," he said.

"Our strategy (was) to try and hopefully trap a few of their players and get quick ball off that, to build a few yards but once again it feels like there's a lot of them on the field at one time. It's just a red wall that keeps coming.

Suffocated "It wasn't a surprise, playing on Saturday that's what they did to us; they suffocated us. That's what they'll try to do again, it's hard to get out of it."

Unsurprisingly, the noise from the All Blacks camp has been centred around referees policing the hindmost foot law.

With the Lions pressurising the officials on the home side's blocking, the onus is on Jaco Peyper to keep a handle on the occasion as the Lions look to storm the most impenetrable fortress in the game.

Irish Independent

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