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|New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – third Test|
|Venue: Eden Park, Auckland Date: Saturday, 8 July Kick-off: 08:35 BST|
|Coverage: Follow the decisive third Test live on the BBC Sport website from 07:30 BST|
The Lions are 80 minutes away from a series win against world champions New Zealand that would cause ripples around the sporting world and echo in rugby folklore for decades to come.
This is the climax of the class of 2017’s existence and it will determine how they will be remembered. Everything has built to this.
After coming within three points of the tourists in the second Test in Wellington – despite playing with 14 men for most of the match – the All Blacks will be confident of revenge and victory, however.
It has been a tough, tight and enthralling tour so far, with the sides level at one-Test apiece going into the decider. I expect its final act to be the same.
Poker-face Gatland sticks with second Test side
Since a stuttering win over the Provincial Barbarians five weeks ago in their tour opener, coach Warren Gatland says his Lions side have been on a steep curve of improvement.
He spoke of the team having “another level” within them and has shown faith in the same line-up that won the second Test for Saturday’s third Test at Eden Park.
These guys deserve another crack at it.
The main question mark was over loose-head prop Mako Vunipola. He gave away four penalties and was sin-binned in an undisciplined performance.
Gatland has claimed the Saracen was unlucky, but I’m sure he will have been told in no uncertain terms to clean up his game.
The coach may have reasoned that, at this level, front-row replacements are essential as heavy legs tire towards the end of the game.
Vunipola may be just as much as a liability in the final 25 minutes as he would have been in the previous 55 minutes and the Lions would be running the same risk in the decisive phases of the game.
Second row Alun Wyn Jones and flanker Sam Warburton both returned steady, rather than spectacular, individual stats from the second Test, but their experience and consistency is keeping them in the side and, on balance, deservedly so.
Both will be key in stopping the All Blacks on the gain-line, if not before it.
Before the second Test, the coaching staff essentially questioned the qualities of their side as characters, as much as players.
Defence coach Andy Farrell said that the tourists had to “man up” and win the collisions. It was personal.
They were physically dominated up front in the first Test and the coaches knew that if that happened again the series was gone.
Yet, again that will be key.
Less is more?
Instead of travelling straight from Wellington to Auckland after the second Test, the Lions headed to Queenstown, nearly a thousand miles away from the venue of the decider, Eden Park, for a few days’ rest and relaxation that included bungee jumping and power boating.
The All Blacks, by contrast, were straight back into the gym, working out the kinks from their second-Test defeat and focusing on the third.
Hindsight is 20:20. If the Lions get hammered in the third Test, there will be questions about it. But people are always wise after the event.
Gatland did similarly in 2013 in Australia, when the squad headed off for a few day’s surfing in Noosa and promptly romped to victory in the third Test.
He has always been focused on short, sharp training sessions. I’m sure there will have been a bit of rugby stuff fitted in around the fun.
Going straight to Auckland would have meant spending a long time next to the belly of the All Black beast as well.
The All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park for 23 years and right now, with the whole of Auckland bursting with patriotic pride in the wake of the victorious Americas Cup sailing campaign, it would be a pretty intense place to spend the whole week.
There is also the fact that the two teams are at opposite ends of their seasons. The Lions are at the tail-end of long club and country campaigns. The All Blacks are just getting started.
All Blacks roll the dice
This time last year Jordie Barrett was playing in the under-20s World Cup in England, playing in front of a few hundred people at venues that included Manchester City’s training ground,
This Saturday, the 20-year-old makes his first international start in New Zealand’s biggest game since the 2015 World Cup final, if not before.
That sort of meteoric rise might go to some youngsters’ heads, but he is a typically grounded, low-key Kiwi; not a lot of razzmatazz or celebrity, they just want to play the game they love.
It almost goes without saying, considering the production line of New Zealand talent, but he is a superb all-round footballer.
He is not as frighteningly quick as his fly-half brother Beauden, but he is a better goal-kicker, clocking up a 75% success rate in Super Rugby.
At 6ft 5in, he has an obvious advantage under the high ball and his understanding with both his brother and fellow Hurricanes Ngani Laumape and Julian Savea will help him settle.
I don’t think the Lions are going to try and change tactics particularly to focus on him, but the doubt will be whether his excellent Super Rugby form will survive the heat of a Lions series decider.
He made a few mistakes – knocking on early on and then catching Jack Nowell with a high tackle – when playing for the Hurricanes against the Lions.
The change the All Blacks have had to make for Saturday is in midfield after Sonny Bill Williams was banned for four weeks in the wake of his red card for a shoulder to the head of Anthony Watson last weekend.
The All Blacks have decided that the future is Laumape.
The other, more experienced, option was Malakai Fekitoa.
But there is so much talk of him heading to Europe and a rumoured deal with Toulon as he comes to the end of his Highlanders contract, that the selectors decided to go with some of the wealth of talent that lies behind him on the All Black production line.
Like Barrett, it will be Laumape’s first international start.
However, he has had a stellar season for the Hurricanes, is the joint-top try scorer in Super Rugby and in their game against the Lions he ran for yards and yards.
You know what is coming with him. His game is about smashing through defences with cannonball power rather than slicing them open with stealthy angles. He will be running full bore down that inside centre channel, testing the tackling of Owen Farrell.
Some of his defensive decisions were criticised in the wake of the second Test as he got out of the defensive line looking for a big hit. But, that was him coming into the game as a replacement for Sonny Bill Williams – a tricky situation for anyone.
Savea has come in on the wing with both Waisake Naholo and Reiko Ioane out, and what a squad option for Steve Hansen to have up his sleeve.
The 26-year-old has 46 tries in 53 Tests.
He has not been at his usual high standard this season, and was notably quiet in the Hurricanes game against the Lions.
But at his best he is thunderous, running onto the ball and blasting players out of the way to score.
If finds form and space, the Lions are in trouble no matter who he is up against.
Belief has to outweigh doubt for Lions
The team-talks will be very emotional this week in the Lions’ camp. It will be deep and meaningful because there is nothing left for them beyond this match.
Next month, the All Blacks play Australia.
In September, they take on South Africa and Argentina.
In a couple of years’ time, they will be defending their world title.
For the Lions, the only thing left is this match – the team may have existed since 1888, but each incarnation is only as a snapshot in time.
It is simultaneously very serious, and slightly surreal, to be defined by one match.
You have so many doubts as a rugby player, and those are magnified on a Lions tour, where you have locals wishing you well with one breath and predicting your defeat with the next.
I’m a confident individual, but even I had to work on that. I had to deal with the doubt by finding the rational evidence against it. That helped keep it from affecting me and causing me to hesitate on the field.
As a Lion, you find that evidence in the dressing room. It wasn’t about the hyperbole, the history or, as nice as they were, the messages of support from back in Britain.
I just looked around at the players around me as we were preparing to go out.
That collection of talent, that wealth of character, outweighed any doubts I had. I genuinely believed that we could and would win.
I’m sure that when the Lions will feel the same things when look each other in the eyes in the depths of Eden Park on Saturday, the 2017 Lions will feel the same thing.
I would love them to win and they definitely can become only the second Lions team to win a series in New Zealand but, on the balance of probabilities, unfortunately I think the All Blacks are more likely to.
|Lions tour fixtures|
|3 June||Provincial Barbarians||Won 13-7|
|7 June||Blues||Lost 22-16|
|10 June||Crusaders||Won 12-3|
|13 June||Highlanders||Lost 23-22|
|17 June||Maori All Blacks||Won 32-10|
|20 June||Chiefs||Won 34-6|
|24 June||New Zealand||Lost 30-15|
|27 June||Hurricanes||Drew 31-31|
|1 July||New Zealand||Won 24-21|
|8 July||New Zealand|
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