by Craig Wright
There would have been multiple moments during this British and Irish Lions tour that, if you’d have predicted the Test series would be decided on a winner-takes-all encounter, many rugby fans would have simply smiled in sympathy at your delusional behaviour.
Yet, a decisive third Test is what awaits us on Saturday morning, after an incident-packed affair in Wellington. Sonny Bill Williams’ red card – the first shown to an All Black in 50 years – had an almost levelling effect, with the Lions taking full advantage to record a 24-21 victory. Tries from Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray ensured that Beauden Barrett’s errors from the tee would indeed be punished, yet, despite holding a numerical advantage for almost an hour, it took a 78th minute penalty from Owen Farrell to finally secure the result.
Whilst the result was rightly met with delight from the sea of red-clad Lions supporters inside the Westpac Stadium, the manner in which it was earned has been the cause of some concern during the following days. Questions abound, such as why the Lions made such heavy work of dispatching of the 14-man opposition, or how lucky were the tourists that their disciplinary misdemeanours did not end up costing them the game. One question remains above all others, however – can the Lions beat an All Blacks team out for revenge this Saturday?…
For the first time since 1993, the British and Irish Lions have named an unchanged side from their previous outing. This, in itself, has come as something of a surprise to pundits and supporters, with Mako Vunipola perhaps the luckiest of all in retaining his place in the starting lineup. The Saracen is undoubtedly a superb player, but has not shown his best form on tour to date and was a key contributor to the Lions disciplinary problems last weekend. However, the England man will once again start in Auckland, as will Alun Wyn Jones, with the Welsh second-row doing enough to edge out Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson in the battle for the number five shirt.
New Zealand are also unchanged in their forward pack, with blindside flanker Jerome Kaino looking to make up for lost time having been sacrificed in the wake of Sonny Bill Williams’ dismissal last weekend. Codie Taylor, try-scorer in the first Test, also retains his shirt despite some calls for the Crusader to make way for Nathan Harris. However, all eyes will be on captain Kieran Read, who will become the seventh All Black to reach 100 international caps. Subdued in the second Test, one can expect Read to return to top form at Eden Park as he looks to lead his side to victory once more.
After their composed showing last time out, Lions head coach Warren Gatland has elected to keep faith in the Jonny Sexton-Owen Farrell axis, meaning there is once again no place for Ben Te’o. Maligned by some before the tour, the England centre can count himself unlucky not to have seen more Test action to date, having been one of the Lions’ most impressive performers overall. The back-three, too, remains unchanged, meaning no place for the tour’s top try-scorer Tommy Seymour, much to the chagrin of Scottish rugby supporters.
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen, meanwhile, has been forced into making three changes to his back division. Williams’ dismissal and subsequent suspension sees Ngani Laumape promoted to the starting lineup after an impressive showing off the bench in Wellington. The Hurricane’s direct running and subtle handling could pose a significant problem for the Lions this weekend, as the All Blacks look to return to try-scoring form. One may have expected that ambition to be hampered by the loss of Waisake Naholo to a head injury, but when his replacement takes the form of a certain Julian Savea, New Zealand are in safe hands. With 46 tries in 53 caps, the man they call ‘The Bus’ is a force to be reckoned with. Jordie Barrett completes the new additions, with the Hurricanes full-back making his first start for his country in perhaps the most intense atmosphere known to the rugby world. No pressure…
For the second tour in succession, the Lions have a deciding Test match to focus on. However, unlike in Australia four years ago, they arrive in Auckland as underdogs. Whilst a victory would equal rugby nirvana for the men in red, Saturday could unfortunately mean paradise is lost for the tourists at Eden Park. New Zealand to take both the Test and the series.