The All Blacks have gone from settled to scrambled, the Lions from flakey to formidable, but Geraint Powell says it will still need something bigger than the kitchen sink to floor the most ruthless team in rugby.
The British and Irish Lions tour comes down to a Test decider on Saturday, tied at 1-1 after a second Test at Wellington overshadowed by the 25th minute dismissal of New Zealand centre Sonny Bill Williams as the Lions secured a hard fought 24-21 win.
An unchanged Lions 23 will now take on an All Blacks team ringing further changes to cope with injuries and suspension.
The Lions concept required this decider, from the entire rugby world’s focus on a winner takes all encounter in Auckland (where the All Blacks have not lost since 1994) to the independent professional team owners in the northern hemisphere now having to manage their own expectations and reduce their future hopes from ending the inconvenient Lions, to merely trying to reduce the matches to a farcical eight and grabbing a larger slice of the financial pie.
A key question before the second Test was how a 10/12 footballing axis of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell would cope with the physicality of Sonny Bill Williams, with Sean O’Brien lining up in the defensive midfield on an early attacking line-out for the All Blacks.
The unplanned tactic turned out to be the “Pinetree Murrayfield”, as Sonny Bill Williams became the first All Black to be sent off since Colin Meads in Edinburgh in 1967. An astonishing 50 years ago.
A ‘no wrap’ rugby league tackle putting him at risk, his shoulder colliding with the face of Anthony Watson and condemning him to dismissal. There was no dereliction of duty from referee Jerome Garces, an ensuing four-week ban pretty much uncontroversial.
In fact, it was that most unusual of Test matches, a rarity where nearly all the major refereeing calls went against the All Blacks. On another day, before another referee, Mako Vunipola might have received a red card for his clear out of Beauden Barrett or his repeated indiscpline, the Conor Murray try might have been disallowed for the clearing push on TJ Perenara, and Kyle Sinckler could have found himself penalised for jumping into a tackle from Charlie Faumuina rather than winning the decisive winning penalty for being tackled in the air.
Maybe even Maro Itoje might have been binned for repeated offside infringement in the defensive line. Such are the narrow margins.
If the brutal truth be told, and despite playing with 14 men for 55 minutes, the All Blacks would still have won if Beauden Barrett had not missed three very kickable penalties. They pulled 18-9 clear, before conceding two tries. The All Blacks remained comfortable in the rain with a seven-man pack, that the Lions did not even bother trying to squeeze back into the corners, through instantly sacrificing Jerome Kaino to bring on Ngani Laumape in the midfield to try and close down space out wide with a close eye on that Sexton/Farrell axis.
It is no longer purely a case of head (New Zealand) versus heart (Lions), at least if the Lions can raise themselves for one final season ending effort after rest and recuperation in idyllic Queenstown and can cut down on the indiscipline and the penalty count that has been hurting them on this tour.
The inclusion of skipper and general nuisance Sam Warburton saw a much slowed recycling performance at the breakdown by the All Blacks.
Warren Gatland has a deserved reputation for finishing competitions strongly, whether the Six Nations with Wales or the Lions as assistant or head coach.
There are now cracks in the All Blacks side, at least behind. The All Blacks are only 18 months beyond the retirement of Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu (and ex-skipper Richie McCaw in the pack), simultaneous losses that would have devastated any other rugby nation, and they could ill afford in this series to lose the services of experienced backs such as vice-captain Ben Smith and Sonny Bill Williams in quick succession.
Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape, even Anton Lienert-Brown, are novices at Test level. Israel Dagg will not have enjoyed the replays of his try conceding tackle on Taulupe Faletau. Julian Savea returns to the left wing, adding much needed experience.
But, and there is always a but, the Lions will have to weather a 15 man All Blacks “blacklash” if they are to become the first Test team to defeat them at Eden Park since the French in 1994. The All Blacks will probe every possible weakness; any season ending fatigue, any defensive indiscipline, any residual frailty on the left side of the Lions scrum, any lineout wobble’s, any defensive weakness in the 10/12 channel, any back three weakness under the high ball.
They will throw everything, plus the kitchen sink.
Maybe the head does point to a probable All Blacks series win, but the heart does yearn for a Lions victory. A drawn match, and a drawn series, becomes a possibility if neither side can impose themselves on the other in such a likely pressure cooker atmosphere.
But, irrespective of the final match result, the Lions concept has been the real winner of the 2017 tour of New Zealand. It remains the biggest peak between World Cup summits, bar none.
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Date: Saturday, 8 July 2017
Kick-off: 08:35 BST
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett; Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (c) (Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa).
Lions: Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton (c), Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau (Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell)
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