WELLINGTON, New Zealand — When is a game not ‘just another game’? A good example is this weekend’s second Test between the All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions. Talk of this being a cup final, or even a knockout match are being dodged, but there is a feeling that this second Test will have a huge bearing on the future of the tourists.
After a week of more huff, puff and bluster from both camps, the hope is this will be a game remembered for sheer excellence, passion, blood, sweat and beers rather than anything ill-tempered. That was the initial takeaway from Saturday’s first Test but then came talk of Conor Murray being illegally targeted, which led to a retort from Steve Hansen that Warren Gatland was being “desperate”. The sparring partners are friends despite their little digs at one another.
After a frosty start to the week where both coaches took shots at each other, the pressure is on the Lions to let their actions do the talking in order to keep this three-Test series alive.
Former All Blacks and British & Irish Lions coach Graham Henry talks about life after winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
Then came Gatland being dressed up as a clown by the local press — how unoriginal, they could have at least made him a philosophical clown given how mellow the Lions coach has been this week — and then widespread condemnation of the jesterfication. There were further suggestions of Lions ill-discipline with shoulder charges and testicle-grabbing also briefly raised this week.
Both coaches grounded the game back in reality in their midweek press conferences, talking of their wish to meet for beers after the third Test, where they can exchange notes over their mutual love of horse racing. Although, there are two full-blooded matches to get through first.
The lie of the land may not be completely settled; there is a feeling the teams will come to boiling point one way or another on Saturday. Gatland has spent the week telling his team they lost the physical battle in the first Test, and came second in the collisions. Pride wounded, and response demanded. The players won’t want to be associated with passiveness; they will want to propel their Anglo-Celtic brutality on the wall of black on Saturday.
The All Blacks are the masters of saying a lot, but also very little to the press. The lighter moments are usually when they interact with each other on the top table — Anton Lienert-Brown picked a bogey off Israel Dagg’s face on Thursday, how very personal — while Hansen is the puppeteer above it, mixing rugby nous with a quiet appreciation of the sport as a whole.
It’s the sport which sometimes gets lost when teams are put into the ‘brand’ category, when outside forces start to gnaw away at common sense. Gatland alluded to that this week with his handling of the ‘geography six’, and the condemnation of him devaluing the jersey which led to them being stapled to the Lions’ bench and only used when the glass was smashed and the emergency button pressed.
But there were wise words from Hansen earlier in the week. The All Blacks are built on improving the jersey for the next generation, and his take on the minutiae of it all helped quash hysteria. “Our game is way more important than all of us, and if we can produce a game that has ebbs and flows in it, we get more people excited about watching it and people involved in it, and the game stays alive,” Hansen said.
Yet, while there is a lovely innocence of what the All Blacks coach is getting at, the Lions are a results-based entity, and a 3-0 defeat would put them into the endangered category.
Jonathan Sexton, left, has been picked to start for the Lions in Saturday’s second Test. Phil Walter/Getty Images
Sam Warburton assessed their future earlier this week, launching an impassioned plea to safeguard their future but there are bigger forces at work. A whitewash, and a comfortable one at that, means the 2019 realignment of the global calendar saddles the middle of the four-year cycle between this tour and when the Lions head to South Africa in 2021.
Professional rugby has limited room for sentiment, especially as the club game continues to gallop off into the sunset surrounded by self-interest, but a 3-0 defeat means the grim reaper of rugby’s anachronisms will hover over the tourists.
A win, however, and suddenly all is red and rosy. The Lions will battle on to Auckland, teeing up a series decider. How wonderful that would be.
Rugby got a little lost this week. But seeing the tens of thousands of slightly bleary-eyed, brunch-seeking Lions fans in Wellington grounds the whole series. They still believe; the Lions do too. On the field there will be subplots aplenty. The Lions have unleashed their dual playmaker system for the first time and the reintroduction of Maro Itoje and Warburton to the pack suggests they will aim to battle up front, in the air and on the flanks.
The All Blacks have made two changes, but such is their ridiculously varied arsenal, two players can leave and a pair of equally gifted athletes step into their jerseys. The inclusion of Ngani Laumape on the bench is also mouth-watering.
So here’s hoping that for two hours on Saturday, and for the next week afterwards, there will be no incidents to talk through, little digs here and there, and instead the Lions breathe the fire of their very existence, a guttural proclamation of their standing in the modern game. And for the All Blacks, that they continue to drive standards through reinventing even the simplest of age-old rugby tactics.
There’s always a winner — Hansen said earlier “losing is not a great idea, and it comes with a lot of pain, so you don’t want to do it” — but after the brilliance of the first Test, the rugby deities have to deliver another thriller. In the grand scheme of things, this match means a huge amount.
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