Excitement builds as Lions target history

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Win, lose or draw, any notion of Saturday’s series-decider being career-defining for the 30 players taking to the Eden Park has been played down. For the All Blacks, it is one stitch in their rich tapestry while for the Lions, win or lose, they will return to their clubs with reputations intact.

“On a Lions tour I don’t think the players are under any pressure for their future,” Warren Gatland said. “They can go and play and relax.” Similarly they have sidestepped talk of it being a World Cup final. There is a reluctance to put a moniker on this match.


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Despite all that, this is a big old deal. The coaches know that. It will play a part in the Lions’ future; with Steve Hansen’s All Blacks, they simply hate losing, and they will not want to be cast in the same category as the 1971 crop who lost on home turf to the tourists.

It is bubbling nicely. There has been no war of words this week; it has been polite and dignified. But there is a real buzz around this game. From the New Zealand side, maybe there is nervousness — they were meant to win this series 3-0, the Lions were meant to buckle under the vicious schedule, the All Blacks were meant to send them home with tails between legs.

For the Lions fans this is unchartered territory for those on the 2005 and 2009 tours. The series was over by the third Test, they were playing for pride. Lose on Saturday and the Lions would still return with pride intact but ask them if they’d be happy being valiant losers and they’d throw you into the freezing sea of Auckland’s harbour.

The All Blacks are quietly frustrated at the Lions having both Sean O’Brien and Mako Vunipola available. There has been no mud-slinging, but they still feel an injustice that neither were suspended for their various incidents in last Saturday’s second Test. But it is not the All Blacks’ way to moan; they will park gripes and focus on performance.

This is a young All Blacks backline, with Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape making their run-on debuts. Though they know a defeat will see them lose the series, Hansen has taken the pressure off them this week. He has played it masterfully.

“It’s not the first time we’ve lost,” Hansen said. “I’ve read a lot of stories this week and you would think the All Blacks had never lost a game and that the sky is falling in.

“Every week there’s pressure. We’re expected to win every Test match and when we win, we’re expected to win well. You’ve got to embrace that, you’ve got to walk towards that, and life tells you that we’re really only playing a rugby game.

“Real pressure is when you’ve got to spend half an hour giving someone CPR and trying to save their life, and when that doesn’t work, telling their children of their father or mother that ‘sorry, we haven’t been able to save them’. What we’re doing is playing a game of rugby.”

General views during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on June 24 Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for NZR

Gatland’s take on the pressure cooker was that it needs to be channelled into something enjoyable. He has retained the same matchday squad who edged past the All Blacks in Wellington, but they must improve their discipline if they are to win.

“You’ve got to be excited about it, it’s one of the biggest games of their lives,” the Lions coach said. “It’s not going to define them though. It’s a pressure you relish.

“It’s why you do all those hours of training and preparation. You want those big moments in sport and sometimes they don’t come around that often. There’s nothing better than a decider as a top sportsman. That’s pressure about the match, but not pressure about the future.”

There are other issues at play ahead of Saturday’s Test. There’s the Eden Park factor; the All Blacks last lost there in 1994. But is there a mystique around the place? No. It is a ground, like any other when you look at the basic shape and size of the pitch, according to Hansen, but that’s not to say it’s not a hugely important stadium for the All Blacks.

So how do you quantify just how big Saturday’s game is? Well it was one chance meeting in a lift with a former Lion which puts this match in the right context. A win for the All Blacks and we are back to normal; the oval world will be back on its New Zealand-dominated axis. Phew, back to reality. But then again, a win for the Lions…

They asked whether I was excited ahead of the third Test — of course I am, this is why you do the job, the atmosphere last weekend was remarkable and will stay with me.

I asked him what his emotions were. He was part of a losing tour, so there was a sharp intake of breath, maybe a flashback to the changing room before the Test, and the pride of wearing the badge and distant memories of Lions past and present who have put on that same shirt. “This is their chance to make history. This is history”.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/19888710/all-blacks-vs-lions-3rd-test-excitement-builds-tourists-target-history
Excitement builds as Lions target history
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