Monday 19 March 2018

Momentum can carry Lions to historic triumph

Tourists must repeat strong finish to take series

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'Click to enlarge'
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The plates have shifted beneath this series. Suddenly, Steve Hansen is talking in terms of a great All Black transition and Warren Gatland is claiming he's barely glanced at the New Zealand team-sheet.

The world champions remain 11-point bookies' favourites for the series decider, but the feeling in the camps does not reflect the markets.

#WATCH Luke Fitzgerald & Hayden Triggs on the Lions' epic 2nd Test win over the All Blacks and their chances for the deciding third Test

Posted by on Monday, July 3, 2017

The Lions have rattled the All Blacks' cage and the question is what sort of response is coming.

Gatland revealed that Rory Best addressed the squad earlier this week to talk about the lessons he learned from captaining Ireland against a wounded New Zealand in Dublin last November and the tourists will hope to be better equipped than Joe Schmidt's men were that day.

Ireland got sucked into a war of attrition at the Aviva Stadium, failing to take their chances amid moments of lost composure.

As 29 other players kicked the living daylights out of each other, Beauden Barrett found space and created the tries that settled the Test match.

Maro Itoje during a British and Irish Lions training session. Photo: Sportsfile
Maro Itoje during a British and Irish Lions training session. Photo: Sportsfile

With Seán O'Brien and Maro Itoje setting the tone, the Lions can more than hold their own in the physical stakes as they return to Eden Park tomorrow. The key is finding the composure to take the game to the world champions through their twin play-makers Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell.

They can draw comfort from the final 20 minutes of last weekend's second Test win in Wellington when they took the game by the scruff of the neck and went out and won it, outscoring their opponents 15-3.

The All Blacks were down to 14 men but the momentum of the series was altered profoundly during the quarter and suddenly the raft of retirements that followed the World Cup in 2015 and the loss through injury of vice-captains Dane Coles and Ben Smith have undermined confidence in the All Black aura.

Winning tight games was the New Zealand speciality, but suddenly when the stakes were high they blinked first.

Hansen has responded by making three changes and, perhaps more interestingly, he has begun talking about the loss of experience his team are dealing with in the post-Richie McCaw era.

It was rarely mentioned during their 18-match winning run, but suddenly the talk is veering towards transition.

Two of the starting backs have never started a Test match before, while there are questions being asked of the out-half and the captain.

Two World Cups have sated the public, but a series loss would pull the rug from under a very comfortable team and management.

Suddenly, Hansen is complaining about the loss of experience after 2015 and there is a question mark over whether these All Blacks are quite the same team as the won that secured back-to-back world titles.

"It's been hard," he told the 'Telegraph' of the transition.


"Harder than people realise. You lose people like Keven Mealamu, Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock. All of them, bar Conrad, have played over 100 games. And that's a lot of experience in big moments, a lot of adversity, because that's where we grow up the best, when we have adversity in our life.

"This year we've had a bit of adversity, with Ben Smith not playing, Sonny suspended, Ryan Crotty out, and they're three people who play a big part with that experience, because they've all been there.

"You've groomed them to take these other people's places. And then bang.

"But what's the positive out of that? You've got another group of people who've been exposed to something that maybe they're not totally ready for, but they're good enough to deal with it if we do things right. And then when they come back, and everyone's available, people say, 'Oh you've got so much depth'. Well, that's how you get depth."

In his press conference yesterday, he returned to the theme.

"We've lost games of rugby before, you know?" he said. "Every week there is pressure in rugby and you have to embrace it. But real pressure is having to give someone CPR and then maybe telling their loved ones they haven't made it... what we are doing is playing a game of rugby.

"This is a young team and whatever happens in this game we will be better for it. Is there more pressure this week than last week? No.

"We are expected to win every game we play and on Saturday it's going to be physical. Every Test match is won up front and this will be no different.

"The Lions series is hugely significant because it only happens once every 12 years. But it won't define this team whether we win, lose or draw. This is a young team that will only get better."

Opposite them are a collection of players who will never take the field together again, who know the historical significance of the task facing them and are beginning to believe that they are on the cusp of something special.

Winger Anthony Watson says they need to channel their last-quarter performance from Wellington into the complete display this time around.

"It showed a lot of character of the squad that we were down on points and came back, put out a strong performance in the last 20," the Bath man said.

"I think it's just a reflection of how much work we've put in, the togetherness of the squad and the courage of some individual players to step up in those moments and show what we can do."

This remains a battle between rugby's most cohesive unit and a team that came together six weeks ago, but the Lions' victory last week has helped shift perceptions here in New Zealand.

They have created doubts in All Black minds and once again they'll be backed by a large legion of fans who have been winding their way up from Wellington for the grand finale.

Four years ago, they were far too strong for Australia in Sydney and no one is doubting that this will be a much more difficult affair.

Yet, the tourists and their collection of experienced, big-game players appear ready for the battle.

"We're ready for it," Gatland said. "They're going to try and dominate us up front, particularly in the tight five, and try and give some of their inexperienced backs go forward. If they don't get that advantage up front - and we're aware of making sure we try and negate the threat of their tight five - it should make the game interesting."

Verdict: Lions

All Blacks v Lions, live,

Sky Sports 1, 8.35am tomorrow

Irish Independent

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