Lions have poked the tiger

The British & Irish Lions’ magnificent victory in New Zealand may inspire a new attitude in the minds of the All Blacks in the weeks and months to come, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Take a breath, people. The All Blacks aren’t about to relinquish their title of world’s best in the wake of the loss to the Lions in Wellington.

Indeed, that defeat, that reality check, could be what motivates them ahead of the final Test against the Lions at Eden Park. Argentina, Australia and South Africa should brace for a Blacklash in this year’s Rugby Championship. For the first time in nearly a decade, the All Blacks may feel that they have a point to prove.

We’re talking about the greatest rugby team of the professional era. The All Blacks have done it all since 2009. Two World Cups. Five Rugby Championships. They’ve won regularly at notoriously hostile away venues like Ellis Park. Prior to Saturday’s match at the Cake Tin, they had won 47 consecutive Tests in New Zealand. They were expected to win the series against the Lions 3-0.

You have to admire what they’ve achieved over the past decade. At the same time, you have to admit that their dominance hasn’t been good for the sport. In more recent years, that dominance probably hasn’t been good for the All Blacks themselves. Winning has come relatively easy and, until this Lions series, there’s been nothing left to conquer.

For the neutral, it’s been a treat to watch them break records and go where no team has gone before. At the same time, for those who believe that the thrill of sport is in the contest, it’s been a bit boring.

Rugby needed the Lions to beat the All Blacks. The sport needed a team to go to that fortress in New Zealand and prove that victory is indeed possible and that the seemingly invincible All Blacks do have weaknesses that can be exploited to a telling degree.

The Lions have taken the fight to the All Blacks in this series. They have ignored the baying of the uneducated masses at home and in New Zealand and have stuck to a game plan that suits their players. That game plan has frustrated opposition teams on this tour  – remember how the Crusaders were kept tryless – and has also resulted in many a try for the Lions themselves.

The All Blacks haven’t been at their best. They capitalised on opposition mistakes to win 30-15 in the first Test in Auckland. The 15-point margin of victory made a mockery of all analyses which suggested that the hosts needed to up their game ahead of the second Test in Wellington.

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They didn’t. The All Blacks went into the game at the Cake Tin expecting to win.

They seemed at a loss to counter the Lions’ physicality. They maintained their composure after Sonny Bill Williams was red-carded, and competed admirably with 14 men for the next 55 minutes. In terms of their general discipline and defence, however, they weren’t at the top of their game.

The Lions did well to target the All Blacks’ key men on Saturday. The incident where prop Mako Vunipola smashed flyhalf Beauden Barrett off the ball was a good example.

It was late and it was illegal, and Vunipola was shown a yellow card soon afterwards. And yet it was an incident that summed up the contest, in that Lions physicality had well and truly trumped All Blacks wizardry. On the day, Barrett wasn’t given the space to work his magic.

The result in Wellington may be as good for the All Blacks as it was for the sport as a whole. We now go into the third Test knowing that it should be competitive. We’re no longer wondering if the Lions can beat the All Blacks. We saw that they can beat the All Blacks in Wellington.

At the same time, we know that the All Blacks have been in cruise control for some time. Don’t get me wrong, they have the best coaches, players and structures on the planet. But it’s been some time since they’ve been in a scrap such as this, and have been pushed to explore the extent of their mental and physical capabilities.

The Lions can win in Auckland this coming Saturday, but I don’t think that they will. The result and performance in Wellington would have left the All Blacks hurting. It would have served as a reminder that victories in these sorts of battles are hard-earned.

The Lions have poked the tiger, and will have to deal with the consequences at Eden Park this Saturday. Argentina, Australia and South Africa could feel the backlash in the coming Rugby Championship as the All Blacks seek to remind all and sundry exactly why they are No 1 in the world.

For those who prize the contest over the accolades, it would be great to see these teams raising their respective games to match a reinvigorated All Blacks side. It’s not going to be easy, though.

Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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