IT’S a much looked forward to decider at Eden Park Saturday and while the Lions have named an unchanged 23 from the victorious second Test last week, the All Blacks selectors have made what is another bold decision after opting to play with only seven forwards last weekend for three-quarters of the game.
This time, starting places are given to two very inexperienced backs. Both fullback Jordie Barrett and inside centre Ngani Laumape will also be getting only their second international caps.
The youngest of the Barrett siblings in the squad was awarded his first cap in the warm-up game against Samoa three weeks ago and should be a useful option for kicks at goal if older brother Beauden is off form.
With another brother, Scott, on the bench, there is a likelihood that all three Barretts will be on the field later in the game.
Much is expected of Beauden, who has had an outstanding last few years since taking over the No. 10 shirt from Dan Carter and also in this year’s Super Rugby, but who has so far failed to produce anything near his best in the first two Tests.
Laumape was exposed in defence once last week but in attack made a few bursting runs of the crash-ball type and is expected to do more of the same this time.
His combination with Anton Lienert-Brown will mean one of the least experienced midfields, if not the least experienced, starting for the All Blacks since the game went fully professional in 1995.
At one time the midfield was a concern for the team but subsequently there emerged a few talents like Lienert-Brown but an injury to Ryan Crotty and the four-week suspension of Sonny Bill Williams for his sending off in the second Test means that suddenly the issue of lack of experience came to force some serious thinking by the selectors, this being a series decider and that the All Blacks have only lost one series – in 1971 – of the 11 encounters up to 2005.
Wingers Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane could not be considered for selection due to injury and an illness respectively.
Lions coach Warren Gatland has named an unchanged match-day 23, the first time the team is playing with the same consecutive line-up since 1993.
They had the upper hand last week, especially in the last 20 minutes but that was to be expected against a team that was down to one man less from the 25th minute.
Eden Park, the venue for the 1st Test won 3-15 by the All Blacks, is where the hosts have not lost since a defeat to France in June 1994, and the last time the All Blacks have lost two consecutive Tests at home was in 1998, a year when they lost five in a row to equal the previous worst.
So for the Lions there’s more than just winning the series that is on the table. Winning this Test would also mean breaking other long-held and proud records of the All Blacks.
If they win this most of the issues that were widely commented on since the tour started on June 3 would have been forgotten by most.
It’s the series that matters, no ifs and buts. Which is why fans are hoping that unlike the second Test, this decider will be played 15 against 15 for the full 80 minutes. All the positives talked about of the Lions from the second Test were not indicative of the true standards of both teams simply because of the sending off.
Last Saturday was also when the All Blacks strangled themselves, with replacement prop Charlie Faumauina tackling Kyle Sinckler in the air to give the Lions the three easy points that won them the game.
As for support, Lions fans are expected to outnumber the home crowd due to loopholes in the sales on tickets.
For the Test at the 38,000 capacity Westpac Stadium, the official allocation for Lions fans was only 8,000 but an estimated 20,000 plus supporters were at the venue that evening.
It’s going to be the same story at Eden Park which has a capacity of 45,000. That big number and the singing will certainly drown the home crowd and give it a home game feel for the tourists.
Keywords: Rugby, Lions versus All Blacks
, Eden Park, Test rugby, Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape