British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton knows few rugby Tests in recent times have carried as much significance as today’s second match against the All Blacks.
At stake is not only the outcome of the three-Test series which New Zealand lead 1-0 after winning last weekend’s first Test at Auckland 30-15 but, possibly, the future of Lions tours.
If the Lions lose a series in New Zealand for the 12th time in 13 attempts – a sequence broken only by their solitary victory 46 years ago – the viability of future Lions tours will likely be called into question.
“There are lots of games which are ‘must-win’,” Warburton said. “But this is actually,” and he raised his voice to emphasise “must-win.”
There are already questions swirling about the itinerary the Lions accepted on this tour in which they will have played all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams, the New Zealand Maori, Provincial Barbarians and three Tests against All Blacks in the space of five weeks.
If the Lions lose today’s Test and with it the series, it will be argued with good reason that the tour was sabotaged by its own schedule; that at the end of an already long and physically-demanding season, the Lions players were subjected to an itinerary that none could be expected to endure.
Now the success of this tour and the future of the Lions as a concept may hang in the balance. British rugby clubs, privately financed, have little enthusiasm for tours such as those the Lions make infrequently to Australia, New Zealand or South Africa and of the toll they take on players they see as expensive commodities.
Club owners would be happy to seize on a Test series defeat as a sign that Lions tours are no longer viable, no matter the prestige those tours hold and the important place the Lions have taken in rugby history.
Warburton, on the eve of possibly the most important match of his career, made an impassioned statement on the importance of the Lions from a player’s perspective.
“I don’t understand the politics and the finances,” he said. “But from a playing point of view it’s been the absolute pinnacle of my career. Every career highlight I’ve had has been in a Lions shirt. I’ve still loved playing for my club the Cardiff Blues and Wales. But the Lions is what it’s all about for me.
“Without sounding too strong, I’d be devastated, gutted, if the Lions were ever lost. The players all think exactly the same. In my house I’ve only got one jersey hanging up on my wall and it’s my Lions jersey. So that’s how much I think of the Lions.”
Warburton said leading the Lions in today’s Test will be “definitely the biggest challenge of my career so far”.
He said the All Blacks are “the one team I haven’t beaten in world rugby… so it’s something I’m desperate to achieve.
“For that fact put together with being away from home, starting in a Test match, it’s going to be the biggest honour in my career leading the boys on Saturday so I can’t wait for that.”
Warburton has played New Zealand often enough to know the mental challenge ahead of his players. The All Blacks are capable of scoring from any opportunity and Warburton has played in teams which were in a match for long periods, then conceded points and saw things “cascade”.
“The guys around me are guys who have the mentality which I want from them,” Warburton said. “They don’t care who they’re playing against. [The All Blacks are] all human beings and anybody can get put under pressure. It’s about making sure we can do that on Saturday.
“Last weekend they justified why they’re the best team in the world but I definitely believe, with the guys we’ve got and the way they’ve been speaking this past week, that everybody’s got the perfect attitude to take into this game.
“It’s like knockout rugby and hopefully that brings the best out of the guys.”
Mako Vunipola has vowed to prove Warren Gatland wrong and restore the British and Irish Lions’ “wounded” pride.
Head coach Gatland laid into his Lions after last weekend’s 30-15 first Test defeat and has challenged his squad to “fight fire with fire” to rebuild their aggressive reputation today.
“That has stung massively, as a person and as a player, because we’re all very competitive players,” said Vunipola, of Gatland’s criticism.
“It’s him laying the gauntlet down. So it’s up to us if we take that challenge on or shy away from it. I want to get out there and prove him wrong.
“I don’t know if he meant it like that, but that’s how I took it. So I want to prove him wrong.”