The All Blacks and British and Irish Lions enjoyed a moment of calm yesterday as they put in place the final elements of their preparation for today’s third Test at Auckland’s Eden Park which will decide the three-match series.
After spending the first half of the week reviewing the result of the second Test in which the Lions beat New Zealand 24-21 to level the series 1-1, players spent the second half trying to put into perspective a match many expect to be the biggest of their careers.
The Auckland Test has variously been described as a World Cup final, an unofficial world championship... more creatively, All Blacks scrumhalf TJ Perenara likened it to game seven of the NBA finals.
Players on both sides agreed it was a match of a magnitude they have not experienced before.
The All Blacks have won the last two World Cup finals and those were occasions which had their own perfect storm of pressure and expectation.
But this morning’s match appears to have something more. World Cup finals, despite the tournament and play-off matches that precede them, are largely one-offs – great occasions but also isolated ones and not always compelling.
And World Cup finals come along every four years, but the Lions last toured New Zealand 12 years ago and are not due to do so again for another dozen years. The Lions have toured here 12 times in 113 years and have only won a series once in that time; the possibility that history will be rewritten today has added to the sense of anticipation.
The Lions arrived in New Zealand five weeks ago to great fanfare but their early performances were unimpressive. They lost two of their mid-week matches against Super Rugby teams but had decent victories over the Crusaders and the New Zealand Maori.
They arrived at the first Test in Auckland as underdogs, played above that billing but still lost 30-15 and seemed bound for a series defeat. Few expected the Lions to win the second Test in Wellington – given no Lions team had won a Test in New Zealand since 1993 – and the prospect the series would remain alive by the third Test seemed slight.
But the Lions won impressively. The fact New Zealand played 55 minutes of the match with 14 men after centre Sonny Bill Williams became the first All Black sent off in a Test in 50 years, had a bearing on the match but did not decide it.
The Lions scored two tries and held the All Blacks tryless in a Test for the first time since 2014. In doing so they stamped their credentials as a team of world class and breathed life into the series.
Coach Warren Gatland said his Lions had “poked the bear” in winning the second Test and that he expected a brutal backlash from the All Blacks in Auckland.
The All Blacks have been forced by injuries and Williams’ suspension to name an inexperienced backline for the decider, including full-back Jordie Barrett and centre Ngani Laumape, who will be making their first Test starts.
It’s little wonder that players from both sides sought yesterday to try to contain the sense of drama the match has taken on. All Blacks flanker Sam Cane, taking his cue from coach Steve Hansen, assured everyone the sun will come up tomorrow regardless of the outcome.
“Whatever happens on Saturday is going to be great for us,” Hansen said. “If we win, it’ll be good because we’ll have come through a moment. If we lose, we’ll have to look at ourselves again and say ... what can we take and learn from that?’
“Yes, it will go down in history we lost the series or that we won the series, but it’s really irrelevant in the long term of a player’s career.”
Lions captain Sam Warburton said he would not allow himself to get caught up in the drama over the decider until today because he feared expending his emotional energy too soon. “You appreciate it is probably going to be the biggest game we’ve played in,” he said.
“But that’s what every sacrifice you’ve made since you were a young kid and decided to be a rugby player is all about ... games like this.”
Today’s game will represent a significant milestone for a few of the players. Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones, for example, will become just the seventh man to play in nine straight Lions Tests, while his compatriot Jonathan Davies, the centre, will start his sixth straight Lions Test.
New Zealand skipper Kieran Read wins his 100th cap and is looking forward to what lies in store from 8.35am. “We weren’t really happy with the way we played last week, so certainly we’ve got to make a change,” said the No 8.
“It is a pretty exciting challenge. It doesn’t get better than playing at Eden Park in what, in a sense, is a final. So it’s a pretty awesome opportunity. I will be rocking up tomorrow and I will have a few butterflies in the stomach. But overriding that is the excitement of why you do this.”
And when the battle is over, there will be a chance for All Blacks and Lions players to socialise together, an old-school tradition that Read will relish. “There is an after-match [function], so I am looking forward to that,” he added. “It’s something that is kind of a little bit lost, but it’s awesome to have the odd chat with the Lions boys and the guys we play against. I certainly still love that part of the game.”