Focus is now on Hansen as Lions aim for immortality
Steve Hansen reckons it’s a result great for world rugby and, while leaving out the aesthetics, I think we would all go along with that.
Not the manner of the Lions’ win – and let’s be honest here the tourists made heavy weather of the extra man before eventually squeezing home to bring it all down to the final day and this final game in Auckland.
As I suggested in the build-up to Saturday’s unexpected win, to lose the second Test would have made for a miserable final week and an almost guaranteed whitewash. Now they are in with a fighting chance. For the first time in the series the spotlight is on the All Black management to see how they react to Saturday’s defeat and rejig bountiful resources because, on Wellington’s evidence, there is justification for change.
The absence of Sonny Bill Williams at the heart of the team, and by extension the attacking strategy, will alter the chemistry entirely. Whatever about attacking the gain-line, and bear in mind it will be a different centre pairing from Eden Park first time around, it is the removal of that octopus-like ability in the tackle to get the ball away that so often — particularly in a crisis — takes this New Zealand side to another level.
And let’s be clear on one thing: Williams has no one to blame but himself. What he did was thuggery of the highest order and loaded with malicious intent. For all the goodness surrounding his giving away of that World Cup winner’s medal and dispensing all but his jocks in the immediate aftermath of games, his shoulder charge to Anthony Watson’s unprotected head deserved the red card it got. It effectively lost his side the game and let his country down.
It is often suggested that rugby in terms of its physicality is going soft. It is not but for anyone to defend Williams’ action would be an attempt at defending the indefensible. Personalities of the stature of Sonny Bill are, in addition to their rugby-playing ability, worth their weight in gold but when he did what he did he lost his side this match and in the process put the result of the Test series on hold.
Suddenly the focus of attention is the All Blacks camp and for Warren Gatland, and everyone involved in an official capacity with the Lions, it is a week in which to disappear off the face of the earth. It is the time on this tour for Gatland to say nowt. Hansen needs little psychological assistance in getting the All Blacks up for Auckland.
I do not accept that the loss in Chicago was “entirely attitudinal”. The absence of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in Soldier Field was the key factor for me but the point is well taken in the context of this second Test defeat now. It wasn’t about attitude but everything to do with that single SBW moment of madness.
To be fair to the coach, he hasn’t hung his hugely influential centre out to dry ,nor would I expect him to, but no matter how anyone may seek to dress it up, a pressure cauldron has been created in which the almost broken Lions suddenly have everything to play for in a Test series that had already seemed well beyond redemption.
It is again a high-profile example of the beautiful unpredictability of sport whereby a sending-off or a key injury can turn even a mismatch on its head. Relatively care-free going into Wellington, the pressure is now very much on Kieran Read and the All Blacks to deliver in the deciding match.
It brings with it a different type of build-up and, depending on the elements and personnel involved, a different type of tactical approach.
We will deal with the nuances later in the week but it looks from this distance like the two most talented combinations in the world at this point in time going back ‘in-house’ to mould the most effective ‘must-win’ combinations they can.
I hope I am wrong – and the weather at Eden Park will be central — but it is difficult to see anything beyond graft smothering guile.
One other pertinent point and it relates to Seán O’Brien and his citing for what was deemed to be a swinging arm on the threshold of a red-card offence.
I have watched the video evidence available over and over and cannot for the life of me see how it is a malicious or citable offence and believe the fact that he is available for selection this weekend is the correct decision.
When all is said and done, the bottom line is 80 minutes from rugby immortality — no matter what you think of Gatland or how he’s got us to this point.