Lions tour: History beckons for Lions as Warren Gatland fires battle cry
The Lions are one win away from a piece of rugby history with their head coach Warren Gatland believing that victory in tomorrow's decisive third Test against the All Blacks would leave a lasting legacy,
After their unlikely win in Wellington a week ago, the clash in Eden Park (8.35am kick-off) could see them become just the second set of Lions to win a series in New Zealand.
The names of those 1971 winners - Willie John McBride, Barry John, Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards et al - still conjure something in the mind of fans to this day.
And while, in a series where many expected them to be whitewashed, the visitors are almost playing with house money having already forced a decider that few saw coming, Gatland is aware they are now on the brink of the rarest of feats.
"For a group of players, there is no doubt - we haven't spoken about it yet but maybe we will in the next 24 hours - they have an opportunity to leave a bit of a legacy," he said.
"This is an opportunity that we haven't had since 1971, I think there have been 11 Tours to New Zealand and the Lions have only won one.
"You get those moments in your life and you don't want those moments to pass you by, that is what big occasions and big sporting events are about.
"I have no doubt that the players will start thinking about it and that will build slowly to the match as it starts to get closer and the players start to realise what potentially could happen and what a special moment winning a series in New Zealand could be.
"You have got to be excited, it is a pressure that you relish. This is what you do all the training for, you want those moments and they don't come around often."
Having had Sonny Bill Williams sent off in the 25th minute, and spurned three of the 10 kickable penalties given to them by the Lions, the All Blacks are unlikely to be as below par as they were a week ago in the 24-21 defeat.
Gatland though still believes his team can also find an extra gear in Auckland.
"We have got another level in us and that is exciting, the players feel like if we click, then we can do something pretty special.
"We think this team has got better and better and will get better on Saturday.
"I think you should all be excited about what should be one hell of a Test match."
Rugby's most fearsome side have not lost back-to-back games in New Zealand for 19 years, while no visiting team has won in Eden Park since 1994.
With defeat unimaginable for locals who are already ramping up the pressure on their heroes, the Lions have taken a different approach to this defining week, taking the early days off in Queenstown and causing something of a storm in a teacup when players were pictured on social media drinking alcohol.
While Kiwi flanker Jerome Kaino was first to say that he and his team-mates would rather be training than enjoying the relaxation on offer ahead of such a titanic game, coach Steve Hansen hardly spoke like a man feeling any undue heat.
"We have lost games of rugby before," he said. "Every week there is pressure in rugby, and you have to embrace it and walk towards it.
"But real pressure is having to give someone CPR and then maybe telling their loved ones they haven't made it. What we are doing is playing a game of rugby.
"This is a young team, and whatever happens in this game, we will be better for it.
"Is there more pressure than last week? No.
"We are expected to win every game we play, and on Saturday it is going to be physical. Every Test match is won up front, and this will be no different.
"The Lions series is hugely significant because it only happens once every 12 years.
"But it won't define this team whether we win, lose or draw. This is a young team that will only get better."
Of that young team, Gatland says the Lions have yet to pay any special attention to individuals in a line-up that boasts three backline changes from the second Test.
"We haven't even spoken about them," he said.
"It feels a little bit ironic, a bit strange, almost like a role reversal," he added.
"When you play against the All Blacks, you try to stop all their threats and you pick a team to do that, but we have just concentrated on ourselves and our game, and going out and doing what we've been doing and what's been successful for us.
"There hasn't been too much chat about individuals in their team. We didn't speak today about the All Blacks team that was selected."
Against a wounded All Blacks, you already know what's coming.
- New Zealand v Lions, Third Test: Eden Park, Saturday, 8.35pm.
Lions’ final match deciders
1903 – Lions lose 1-0 in South Africa: After two successive draws — the second a 0-0 stalemate — the Lions entered the decider in Cape Town. Two tries swept the Springboks to victory and inflicted upon the Lions a maiden series defeat having prevailed on all four previous tours.
1910 – Lions lose 2-1 in South Africa: The Lions’ return proved equally unsuccessful despite taking the series to a decider with an 8-3 win in Port Elizabeth. Cape Town was the setting once more as Tommy Smyth’s tourists were crushed 21-5.
1989 – Lions win 2-1 in Australia: The Lions’ first visit to Australia for 19 years and their first dedicated tour of the country since 1899 teetered on the brink of disaster after a 30-12 mauling in the first Test. Changes were made — among them Jeremy Guscott, Rob Andrew and Mike Teague — and successive wins came.
1993 – Lions lose 2-1 in New Zealand: The last Lions tour of the amateur era was a case of what might have been. A dubious late penalty cost them victory in the first Test before a 20-7 win in Wellington set up a decider but they were beaten 30-13 at Eden Park.
2001 – Lions lose 2-1 in Australia: The Lions dared to dream after crushing the Wallabies 29-13 in the first Test, Brian O’Driscoll and Jason Robinson running in memorable tries, but they unravelled a week later with Nathan Grey’s elbow on Richard Hill that ended the influential England flanker’s series acting as the catalyst for a 35-14 loss. The Sydney decider was a nail-biter that saw the Lions botch a late attacking lineout to succumb 29-23.
2013 – Lions win 2-1 in Australia: The rivals were hard to separate over the first two Tests, the Brisbane opener lit up by George North’s Jonah Lomu-esque try. The build-up to the decider centred on Warren Gatland’s contentious decision to drop O’Driscoll for Jonathan Davies, a call that was in part justified by a resounding 41-16 triumph which avenged the heartache of 12 years earlier. The Lions were magnificent in one of their finest performances.