Bench battle: Lions can match ABs for impact

7:05 AM BST

AUCKLAND — New Zealand. It’s one thing to rattle the All Blacks, another to finish the job.

Looking back across New Zealand’s long period of dominance, which has yielded back-to-back World Cup triumphs, countless Rugby Championship titles and a Bledisloe Cup run that induces a cold sweat in any rugby-loving Australian, it has been the All Blacks’ remarkable ability to pull away in the final quarter of Test matches that has so often proved the difference.

Take last year, for example, when Wales served up a fine 60-minute performance in Auckland only to see a 21-18 lead result in a 36-21 defeat after the All Blacks ran in three late tries. Similarly in Wellington, Wales were right in the contest at 10-all at halftime only for the introduction of Beauden Barrett to blow the game wide open.

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In last year’s Rugby Championship clash in Hamilton, Argentina asked serious questions of the All Blacks and forced a rare poor performance from Aaron Smith. He was hooked shortly after halftime. The Pumas had done the same in a pulsating Pool game at Rugby World Cup 2015 only on that occasion it was Smith, and the introduction of Sonny Bill Williams from the bench, that saw the All Blacks steady and push on to a 21-16 triumph.

With such depth on the bench, anything other than an 80-minute performance has seldom been good enough to worry the World Champions. But for the first time in many years, New Zealand will enter a Test match where the opposition bench is at least the equal of – if not better – than their own.

The British & Irish Lions have picked an outstanding bench, headed by tour captain Sam Warburton and boom England forward Maro Itoje. In the backs, Rhys Webb will add spark in a similar mould to TJ Perenara while Leigh Halfpenny and Jonny Sexton are proven Test performers who were mainstays of the Lions’ 2-1 series triumph over Australia four years ago.

“It’s a great position for us to be in as a team because we feel we have a pretty strong starting XV but also some real impact coming off the bench,” Lions coach Warren Gatland said. “I’m not sure looking at their bench that it is as strong as it has been in the past.”

Rhys Webb David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

Gatland may be at risk of poking the bear with that statement, but there is no denying that when put up against, say, the All Blacks’ bench from the World Cup final in 2015, Saturday’s list of replacements isn’t quite as imposing. For while the Wallabies fought back to close the gap to four points midway through the second half at Twickenham two years ago, an earlier Sonny Bill Williams offload and a flying Beauden Barrett delivered the key plays from the second half. Both men started among the replacements, but find themselves in the run-on side on Saturday.

At Eden Park, it will be up to the likes of Ardie Savea and Perenara to provide that second-half injection – something both men have by the bucket-load. Steve Hansen also likes the variety Anton Lienert-Brown offers. Still, the All Blacks coach played down suggestions he would need something extra from his replacements this weekend.

“It won’t take any more importance than it has in the past, we expect our bench to come off and not only contribute but enhance the performance that’s been before them,” Hansen said Thursday. “And you’ve got four teams coming into one, four very good teams, and hence they’ll have a good bench as you’ve said yourself.

TJ Perenara Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

“And I think they’ve selected a side to do certain things when they come on, which it will be interesting to see when they do come and when we put ours on. But both environments will be expecting something off those guys that are coming on.”

Of course, the Lions will have to do the job across the first 60 minutes if they’re to be in the contest heading into the final quarter. But where the likes of South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Wales, England et al have lacked the depth to finish the job in recent times, particularly in New Zealand, the 358 caps worth of experience and genuine world-class ability suggests the Lions might be able to avoid a similar fate.

As for the All Blacks’ most recent defeat? It took a 76th minute try from Robbie Henshaw in Chicago to ice Ireland’s victory. It’s 80 minutes or bust for the Lions in Auckland.

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