I called for Warren Gatland’s men to be brave last weekend and to be fair, they were. Yes, Sonny Bill Williams’ red card gave the British and Irish Lions a significant advantage in terms of numbers but they were still facing a mammoth task. Beating the All Blacks is difficult at the best of times but beating the All Blacks IN New Zealand is almost impossible.
Like the Lions, referee Jerome Garces also needed to be bold on that fateful drizzly day in Wellington. Williams was rightfully dismissed for his shoulder tackle on Anthony Watson but it still needed Garces to make that mammoth call. So often regarded as the golden boy of New Zealand rugby, Williams became the first All Black to receive a red card in 50 years.
And yet, despite territorial advantage and an extra man for the vast majority of the game, the Lions needed All Blacks kicker Beauden Barrett to miss not one, not two but three straightforward penalty attempts at goal. On another day, Gatland’s side could have lost – but they weren’t about to let their one opportunity to defeat New Zealand go amiss.
But enough about last week. All of the focus and attention should be on Saturday’s return to Eden Park. The Auckland stadium has been New Zealand’s fortress for so long but are the Lions, who became the first team to beat the All Blacks on home soil since 2009 last week, about to do the unthinkable and secure a dramatic series victory?
They are a 33/10 shot to do just that. Once again, Gatland’s men must be both bold and brave but added sparkle would also help, especially in the final third of the pitch. Johnny Sexton was simply sublime last weekend whilst Owen Farrell appeared to relish his move to inside centre and the Lions boss has opted for an unchanged side for the third Test.
Some have criticised Gatland’s decision, stating that the All Blacks won’t be as bad this time around. True as that may be, why change a winning formula? After all, the Lions were good enough to hand New Zealand their first home defeat in 2489 days so why can’t they do it again? This Lions side could push the All Blacks close but once again, they will rely on good fortune to get them over the winning line.
But to beat New Zealand, the Lions MUST cut out the cheap penalties. The vast majority of Gatland’s squad were reliable on defence last weekend but England star Mako Vunipola struggled to cope with the relentless All Blacks pressure. Simply put, the Lions won’t get away with giving 13 penalties away at Eden Park. Gifting New Zealand territory and the chance to put points on the board is never a good idea...
With Sonny Bill Williams ruled out through suspension, the All Blacks have been forced to tinker with their own system. While Gatland was happy with his Lions effort, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen wasn’t overly amused by his side’s wasteful approach – especially after the Lions were also reduced to 14 men after Vunipola’s sin bin in the second period.
The Lions will now have to cope with a different All Blacks threat and that could play into the hands of New Zealand. Gatland’s men probably expected Hansen to wring the changes after the second Test and the Eden Park showpiece could be a spectacular encounter. The All Blacks will be out to get revenge and defend their Auckland dynasty but the Lions might have enough quality to do the unthinkable and secure a come-from-behind series win.