Thursday 14 December 2017

Tony Ward: 'Blacklash' could prove too much for Lions to handle

Kieran Read will lead his side out for his 100th international in tomorrow’s third test. Photo: Sportsfile
Kieran Read will lead his side out for his 100th international in tomorrow’s third test. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It is most commonly defined as the rules of behaviour that require order be maintained by training and control. We refer, of course, to 'discipline', the most common thread in every post-match analysis by either side in this hugely intense tour to date.

It is a stock answer and an easy 'get me out of here response' to media investigation at a time when thoughts are emotionally and mentally scrambled in the immediate aftermath of any game.

In general in modern-day Test rugby, if you hit double figures in penalties conceded and ship even a single yellow card in the 80 minutes you are going to struggle. A red card, as witnessed in Wellington, is tantamount to suicide at this level.

Steve Hansen, Warren Gatland and their respective management teams will have been at their wits' end in pushing that 'scrooge mentality' 24/7 in the build-up.

Easier said than done of course because the nature of rugby dictates that incessant pressure applied in the right areas will - unlike soccer for example - lead to scoring opportunities.

Whether or not they are taken is another matter and certainly, despite landing seven successful penalties on his home patch in the Cake Tin, Beaudie Barrett let three more match-winning opportunities slip away.

Last week's unexpected outcome encapsulated the beauty and unpredictability of sport. Had that mist not descended on Sonny Bill Williams you can take it as read (pun intended) that the Lions would not have been publicising their 'final straight' break in Queenstown. With 15-a-side the series would have been done and dusted, leaving only a shellacking for the tourists on their return to Auckland.

Instead what we've got is a genuine Test series decider and a mid-point World Cup final in all but name. Aside from a number of injuries, allied to Sonny Bill's enforced absence (which is very significant despite New Zealand's player rich pool), this All Blacks squad is under pressure for one of the very few times on coach Hansen's watch.

It will have been a much different Kiwi camp in the build-up to this game than has been the norm.

Yes, they are in the bastion that is Eden Park, yes Kieran Read will lead out the reigning world champions in his 100th international and yes it will include the All Blacks equivalent of the Wallace brothers (Ireland's greatest ever rugby family) in the Barretts - Beauden, Jordie and Scott - but New Zealand will be feeling the heat in a historic occasion.

But allowing for the lessons learnt in Wellington by the unit that came second, all obvious logic points to an inevitable 'Blacklash' as per Dublin post-Chicago.

It may well materialise, and my tuppence worth remains in the black corner, but over the past six days the landscape has shifted ever so slightly on the back of the earth-shattering result in Wellington. Note how the New Zealand camp has come much more into focus with universal interest in Hansen's selection and in how players, normally invincible, were reacting to defeat. As ever, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and whatever else the levelling of the series - however it was accomplished - has planted definite seeds of doubt in the home ranks.

What was unimaginable a fortnight ago is now but 80 tantalising minutes away. Whatever your take on the Lions, the prize of winning this finale is individual and collective immortality in this part of the world.

To that end Gatland has decided that if it ain't broke why fix it. He has picked the same 23 which is a bold but calculated move in itself. A switch between Mako Vunipola and Jack McGrath had been mooted but here too the call is right. Despite making hard weather of last week's win, they still outscored New Zealand by two tries to nil.

New Zealand rugby hasn't lost its aura because of last week - anything but. However, what it has done is put players normally immune from the possibility of losing very much in that spotlight. That is a new dimension with the question to be answered as to how they have handled it this week and specifically how they go about dealing with another guaranteed Lions' squeeze come kick-off.

Man for man, though, this is still the best rugby team on the planet but they are also human and set to play before what I imagine will be a very strange, red-dominated atmosphere in Eden Park. Even as a former Lion I don't get what it is that makes a supporter want to kiss the Lions crest before the camera as in Wellington last week but far be it for me to belittle that naked passion.

Inside the bubble that is the Lions' den, mental preparation will be at fever pitch but will still come back to discipline. On the assumption the lineout functions as heretofore and the scrum locks then in Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell they have the right players wearing nine, ten and 12 to play the right game at the right time in the right areas of the field. With that comes pressure and the inevitable concession of penalties.

Pressed for the most critical factor, it again comes down to control over the ball, in the tackle and at the breakdown. Whether it is Vunipola or Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Seán O'Brien or Sam Warburton doing the dirty work therein lies the key to front-foot tempo.

Have the defibrillator at the ready .

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