The All Blacks should produce a backlash befitting a champion team in Saturday’s third and decisive Test against the British & Irish Lions in Auckland, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
This clash has been spoken of with the same reverence as a World Cup final, and it’s for very good reason. Last weekend’s unexpected win for the Lions drew the series level at 1-1, and has set up a series decider in what should be an epic encounter at Eden Park.
The Lions’ victory in the second Test does have to be seen in context, with both the wet weather and red carding of Sonny Bill Williams serving as greater levellers, but the visitors ultimately adjusted best.
Whatever the case may have been, the tourists will also take massive confidence and belief from the fact that they were able to match the physicality of the All Blacks, and ultimately finished with a flourish to hand New Zealand a first home defeat in 48 Tests.
For a proud All Blacks team, it’s a result that would have stung, with coach Steven Hansen rather sarcastically commenting this week: ‘I've heard a lot of stories that you'd think the All Blacks have never lost a game and the sky's fallen in.’
Yet there can be no doubt that the All Blacks will be fiercely fired up for this game as they look to go out to set the record straight through a far more disciplined and decisive performance.
For the third week in a row, New Zealand have reshuffled their back three, with talented youngster Jordie Barrett coming in at fullback as Israel Dagg shifts to the wing, while Julian Savea makes his comeback at No 11.
The Lions may look to pepper Barrett with a barrage of high kicks in an attempt to test the mettle of the 20-year-old in what will be his first Test start, but he is a physically imposing player who boasts impressive aerial skills.
Despite the occasion, Barrett and the All Blacks will want to come into this decisive clash without any fear of failure.
Word out of the home team’s camp this week has suggested that they are intent on going back to a more natural free-flowing and high-paced approach, with the first Test having been won through defence and forward power, while last weekend they were dragged into a contest resembling trench warfare.
In this regard, the good news for the All Blacks is the fact that it looks like it will be a clear and calm evening in Auckland on Saturday, and there will be a clear desire to express themselves and back their attacking ability when the opportunity arises.
For the Lions, who interestingly spent the beginning of this week taking part in some adventure activities in Queenstown, their focus will be quite simple.
When the Lions have got good reward on tour, it’s come through their ability to deny the All Blacks quick ball, while stifling New Zealand's attack through abrasive defence at the gainline.
Having named an unchanged match 23, the Lions will once again be looking to front up in the physical exchanges and to build scoreboard pressure through the accurate boot of Owen Farrell.
If the Lions can keep it tight heading into the latter stages of the clash, the All Blacks may find themselves facing a pressure dynamic that they have rarely experienced at home, but it’s this sort of challenge that should bring out the best in a champion team.
The All Blacks will be wounded, and the Lions will be sniffing blood, but the world champions should have the class and the composure to absorb pressure, and then assert enough of their own to clinch a series-winning triumph.
All Blacks – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Sam Warburton (c), 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 CJ Stander, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images