It was assumed that Ireland’s historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago last November would provide key to a British and Irish Lions triumph in New Zealand. However, with the series tied 1-1 heading into Saturday’s titanic decider, it is Ireland’s 21-9 loss to the All Blacks in Dublin two weeks later that now becomes the most important reference point for head coach Warren Gatland and his players.
Six of the Lions match squad that set up this third test decider thanks to a 24-21 win in Wellington against the 14 man All Blacks were in the Ireland side that lost in Dublin. The ferocity of the All Blacks response to the 40-29 thumping in Chicago earned yellow cards for Aaron Smith and Malakai Felita while flanker Sam Cane somehow escaped punishment from referee Jaco Peyper for a charge on Robbie Henshaw that saw the centre carried from the pitch on a stretcher with a neck brace supporting his head.
The All Blacks were out for revenge that day in Dublin as the Irish win had stopped them creating a new 19 match unbeaten run of tests. England equalled the All Blacks 18 match streak in the Six Nations last season only to see it brought to an end by the Irish, who also stopped Eddie Jones’s men from clinching a second successive Grand Slam.
For Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Tadgh Furlong, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander, who faced the All Blacks in Dublin and are expected to be in the Lions match 23 on Saturday, that car-crash loss on home soil will be used to ensure Gatland’s men are ready for a physical onslaught. The All Blacks are having to endure a forensic examination of their failings – something the three times World Cup winners rarely suffer at home.
With rugby part of every New Zealanders’ DNA, the hurt of a test defeat takes on a importance rarely seen in any other country and the All Blacks have been told in no uncertain terms how disappointed the nation was at the final whistle in Wellington. Sonny Bill Williams received a four week ban for his sending off for shoulder charging Anthony Watson and apologised to his “brothers” for letting them down. He might as well have added that he was also sorry to the whole of New Zealand and if the All Blacks lose this series he will have to carry the blame for the rest of his sporting life.
The momentum is all with the Lions and they will be taking comfort as they enjoy a break in the winter sport mecca of Queenstown from the fact the All Blacks froze the last time they faced this kind of pressure. That was the 2011 Rugby World Cup final where they somehow scraped an 8-7 win over a French side that was riven by internal warfare. The All Blacks were stifled by the weight of expectation as the entire country sat down to watch their heroes confirm their No1 status.
Now, the All Blacks face a similar scenario and entire careers will be shaped by the result on Saturday. Coach Steve Hansen and his players face the real and present danger of being remembered as the All Blacks who became the first team to lose to the Lions since 1971 and that fear of failure will bring a similar overtly physical response to the one they delivered in 2016 in Dublin. As lock Brodie Rettalick said: “The physicality and the intensity of the first two matches have been huge, especially from them on Saturday.
“I thought they were a lot more physical and confrontational than they were in week one. We need to sort that out and make sure we go back at it this Saturday, because we can’t let it happen again. It is 1-1 in the series. It’s now or never.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The history is not going to help us now, it is just what we are going to do to create our own history.”
as seeb in Evening Standard