The All Blacks are in the unfamiliar position of going into the Third Test on the back of a loss and they know the onus is on them to right the wrongs from Wellington
Bottling momentum in sport is a precious commodity. Before and after the First Test, it was the All Blacks who gave off an insouciant, laid-back air. If there was an edge during training – in public at least – it was hard to pick up. In essence, the All Blacks emitted a low-level confidence borne out of winning 46 games at home, and only three losses in three years.
That all changed on Saturday evening in Wellington, where despite having the fairly large caveat that they were shorn of a man for 55-minutes, they still lost after edging into a nine-point cushion with 21 minutes left on the clock. The fact the Lions were able to claw their way back into the game, and finish with a flurry, will ensure the momentum is with them as we enter the final week of the tour.
How the New Zealand public hark back to the days of stability in midfield. Nearly a decade with the ultra-reliable Conrad Smith and explosive Ma’a Nonu, provided some yin and yang to the No 12 and 13 shirt and that all-important, balance. In the space of two games, the All Blacks have lost both first-choice centres. Ryan Crotty pulled up lame in the first Test with a hamstring tear and is a big doubt for the Auckland decider, and Sonny Bill Williams has four weeks to deal with the ignominy of being the first All Black to be sent off in 50 years.
The rapid recall of rumoured Toulon-target Malakai Fekitoa points to a reprisal of the Lienert-Brown-Fekitoa partnership we saw in last year’s Rugby Championship, especially with the squat, explosive Ngani Laumape only having 55 minutes of Test experience in his locker. Saturday could be an occasion tried and tested combinations.
Lions finding belief
In recent days, the Lions have confounded the critics – and they’ve been queuing up out here in New Zealand. They were widely backed to be on the end of a humiliating 3-0 Blackwash, but their 24-21 victory at the Westpac pointed to a side not ready to be written off. Warren Gatland’s astute selection paid off, with Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton’s varied distribution causing the All Blacks problems.
Up front, too, the response from the tight five to an underwhelming First Test was uncompromising. With the balance in the backrow seemingly found with the introduction of Sam Warburton, there’s no reason the Lions can’t continue to build on promising combinations. Add to that, a largely unused bench from Wellington and you have lashings of untapped energy.
FOR THE LATEST SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS, CLICK HERE
Pressure on the hosts
The New Zealand public are notoriously unforgiving after a loss, which is unsurprising because it hardly ever happens – especially on home soil. Sean Fitzpatrick told the story of not being able to set foot outside for three days and Kieran Read, himself, just back from injury, will be feeling the weight of expectation on his broad shoulders in the coming days.
With the media and public expecting, nay demanding, a convincing Series win, Steve Hansen’s men know they dare not slip up, and if the scores are tight as we enter the final quarter, many would argue it will be the hosts who will be feeling the heat, something Steve Hansen alluded to earlier. “The big thing about when you lose is that it’s painful isn’t it? It sharpens the mind, it sharpens the attitude. You look at things probably a little deeper than you normally do.” There will be no margin for error.
Selection posers out-wide
“The Lions need to score at least four tries a game if they are to have a chance of beating the All Blacks.” That was the common consenus before the tour, but two games into the Series, the Lions lead the All Blacks, four tries to three. In Wellington, the Lions kept the All Blacks scoreless for the first time since 1998, and for all the vim and vigour shown by Reiko Ioane in the first Test, he had a much tougher time in the second Test, spilling the ball late on and looking vulnerable defensively.
Likewise, Waisake Naholo looked a millions dollars going forward but vulnerable when he was turned. With Israel Dagg smarting from being bumped by Taulupe Faletau, Hansen will to toy with re-introducing Julian Savea for some experience and proven firepower.