QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand — The British & Irish Lions have “poked the bear”, in the words of Warren Gatland, but as the countdown begins to next Saturday’s decider in Auckland, the Lions will keep a low profile and concentrate on mixing enjoyment with a calm focus on closing out the series.
The Lions have headed to Queenstown for a couple of days out of the spotlight as they prepare for the third Test on Saturday. Gatland says they will have a “couple of quiet beers” but the decider with the All Blacks will be at the forefront of their attention.
British & Irish Lions flanker Sean O’Brien is cleared to play the series deciding Test against the All Blacks after a disciplinary hearing cleared the Irishman for striking winger Waisake Naholo.
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.
Gatland was still looking for improvement across the board on Sunday, but there was a quiet satisfaction for the Lions coach as he registered his first win over the All Blacks. However, there is an awareness of the backlash awaiting them next weekend.
“The ironic thing is this is the best team in the world and, for two Test matches, they really haven’t stressed us,” Gatland said. “They have squeezed us, made us give away penalties and that has been to our downfall, but we haven’t seen the expansive rugby that the All Blacks are known for and creating havoc.
“We’ve coped with that and if we can continue to cope with that and improve in other areas, then we are going to see, hopefully, a great Test match. Yes, we have poked the bear, but hopefully the wounded Lion from last week is still recovering as well.”
The build up to both Tests has been dominated by off-field dialogue between the sides, but Gatland wants the Lions to keep their counsel this week, aware that the All Blacks will be using the defeat and the pressure of a series decider as motivation.
“They love that, they thrive on it, they don’t often get the opportunity to have pressure put on them and when they do, they thrive on it,” Gatland said.
“Hopefully, we don’t give them any ammunition this week and concentrate on ourselves, because they will be using anything they can to motivate themselves.”
Warren Gatland exits Westpac Stadium after the Lions win over the All Blacks. David Rogers/Getty Images
Some of the players have been here before. Four years ago in Australia the series was locked at one apiece as they headed into the third Test and like 2017, they headed away from the bright lights of the city to recover in Noosa.
It was a masterstroke from Gatland as the Lions stormed to a commanding win over Australia. Alun Wyn Jones captained the side that day, but he is focusing on enjoying every minute of this tour, rather than contemplating the pressure they are under.
“We’ve really got to make sure we enjoy it because I’ve had similar occasions before and probably not enjoyed it as much as I can,” Jones said. “Work sometimes becomes an obsession doesn’t it? We’ll get the best out of everyone if we do enjoy it.
“We know the intensity with what’s at stake will go up again like it did four years ago and very little will change you imagine. I’ve made the point we need to enjoy the next 12 hours and then get ready for next week.”
The Lions have embraced the role of underdogs since they’ve been here. But as they look to keep a low profile in Queenstown, the hype will be going into overdrive ahead of the third Test. Those in red are daring to dream, but for Gatland he is sticking to his principles and doing his utmost to ensure the class of 2017 write their place in history.
“It was kind of all or over today,” Gatland said. “I think, for all of us, for everything, for the future of the Lions, for the team, for people involved, to go 1-1 with no one expecting that, to show the character and go to Eden Park thinking: actually, if we put our best foot forward and play to our ability, we are capable of winning that Test match and the series.”
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