The British & Irish Lions’ epic 24-21 win over New Zealand last weekend in Wellington has set up a winner-takes-all decider this Saturday. It’s the biggest game in the sport since the World Cup final two years ago…and some would argue it’s even bigger than that.
For the first time in 39 matches New Zealand failed to score a try in a Test last week as the tourists bounced back from a 30-15 defeat in the opener in Auckland. On that occasion, they were made to pay for failing to take their chances and New Zealand took full advantage of a couple of lapses of concentration.
They were much improved one week later when, aided by Sonny Bill Williams’ red card and three missed kicks by Beauden Barrett, they pulled off a remarkable win. But can they do it again or will the All Blacks bounce back?
New Zealand form
Going into the series, the New Zealanders were in outstanding form. They still maintain a 77% winning record in Test rugby and had won their previous five matches conceding no more than 19 points.
The defeat to the Lions – a composite team made up of players from four nations – was a huge shock. It came as Williams became the first All Black to be sent off in a Test for 50 years and the first ever at home. A first home defeat since 2009 is a marker of just what a huge result it was for the tourists.
But New Zealand’s run without defeat at Eden Park, the venue for the decider, goes back even further. Not since 1994 have they tasted defeat in Auckland. They couldn’t have handpicked a more suitable venue to play a must-win match.
It has been a good tour for the Lions, with the highs outweighing the lows. In general, they’ve improved throughout as coach Warren Gatland has worked out his what his best team is. Losses to the Blues and the Highlanders didn’t set them back too much, particularly as they shut out the Crusaders and saw off the Chiefs, the Provincial Barbarians and the Maori All Blacks comfortably enough. They did give away a 14-point lead to draw with the Hurricanes ahead of the second Test which is a cause for concern.
The first Test was disappointing and they were outplayed for much of the second Test, despite Gatland’s claim that his team were the better side throughout. As a touring side, the Lions have only won a tour in New Zealand once, and that was way back in 1971.
Gatland has named an unchanged side for the series finale and it is easy to see why. It means he keeps faith with Jonny Sexton at 10 and a centre pairing of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Davies with Sam Warburton captaining again. For the first time since 1993, the Lions will play two consecutive Tests with the same starting line-up and bench.
Following the defeat, the All Blacks were always going to make changes, and not just because Williams copped a four-week ban for his high tackle. But they have thrown Jordie Barrett – brother of fly-half Beauden – into the cauldron and he will make his first start at full-back, as will Ngani Laumape at 12. Israel Dagg moves to the right wing and Julian Savea is in at left wing. Barrett kicked flawlessly and Laumape crossed for a try during the Hurricanes comeback against the Lions so Steve Hansen has picked two dangerous form players.
Despite winning in Wellington, the Lions still conceded 13 penalties. If they don’t cut out that indiscipline, expect New Zealand to punish them heavily, particularly with 15 men on the field. The Lions will look to target Jordie Barrett early with plenty of high balls to prey on any nerves. Likewise, they will want to expose any hint of uncertainty between the inexperienced centre pairing of Laumape and Anton Lienert-Brown.
The weather may also play its part. Both teams want to play attacking rugby and move the ball out wide but if the rain comes down and it becomes a territorial battle, that brings the Lions more into play given the experience of Connor Murray, Sexton and Farrell of playing that sort of game.
Top Betting Tips
In terms of betting on an outright win, there is little value to be found in the expected All Black victory. They haven’t lost consecutive Tests since 2011 and not since 2009 has the same opponent beaten them twice in a row. The win is an odds-on shot (around 1/4 or 2/7) and rightly so. If you do think the Lions can build on last week’s win, they are available at about 7/2, but it needs an awful lot of luck to go their way.
The bookmakers expect New Zealand to win by around 11 points but given that the Lions have pushed the All Blacks close throughout, either a New Zealand win by 1-12 points at 15/8 with Paddy Power or by 11-20 at 5/2 with Ladbrokes looks appealing. If anything, the Lions might start the more confident of the two sides and provided they don’t run out of steam in the second half, it is harder to see New Zealand running away with the match than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Expect a huge reaction from Hansen’s men, and a victory, but not by a massive margin.