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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

New Zealand v British & Irish Lions: Five talking points ahead of winner-takes-all final Test

The Lions conclude their tour on Saturday at Eden Park knowing victory would secure a first series win in New Zealand for 113 years.

New Zealand captain Kieran Read will lead his side against the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on Saturday. David Davies / PA Wire
New Zealand captain Kieran Read will lead his side against the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on Saturday. David Davies / PA Wire

The British & Irish Lions will complete just their second series win in 113 years of touring New Zealand if they succeed in the final Test in Auckland on Saturday. They set up a deciding match by beating the 14-man All Blacks in Wellington last week. Now they stand on the brink of history.

Nothing won yet

The Lions players have probably felt a warm glow of satisfaction this week. They had a fair bit of acclaim after their series-levelling win in New Zealand’s capital.

Some relief, too. And the guarantee that, whatever happens from here on in, there is no way this tour will be considered a failure. Not like the nightmare of the last time they were in New Zealand 12 years ago. Which is nice.

Then they will take the field at Eden Park, look across, and see Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett lining up against them.

There is a reason the All Blacks are regarded as the world’s best. History is going to take some earning for the Lions.

Innocent youth

The two starting line ups have almost identical averages ages. New Zealand’s is 26.65, and the Lions 26.57.

While the tourists have an even spread between their forward pack and their backs, there is a big disparity in the All Blacks.

Their backline – average age 25 – is light on experience, after the addition of Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett to the starting XV for the deciding Test.

With Anton Leinert-Brown also still finding his way in the international game, the tourists might feel they can find a tactical edge at the back. If they can secure enough ball, that is.

Fortress Eden

It feels like only five minutes since we last heard about what an impregnable fortress Eden Park is for the All Blacks. Perhaps because it is only two weeks since they last played there.

New Zealand were savvy when they scheduled two-thirds of the Test series in Auckland. OK, so it means the whole of the South Island missed out on having a Lions Test.

Home supporters will surely happily offset the lack of a geographical spread of matches, though, given how invincible their side are at the country’s biggest stadium.

The record bears repeating: it is 39 Tests and 23 years since New Zealand last lost at Eden Park, against France.

Of today’s starters, Leinert-Brown, Jordie Barrett and Maro Itoje were not even born then.

Big boots to fill

Imagine the scenario. Your first start in a Test match, in a Lions decider, filling the boots of Sonny Bill Williams.

It is a good job Laumape has broad shoulders. And broad everything else, for that matter.

The power-packed centre has already shown the Lions his merits in a stunning display in the drawn midweek match for the Hurricanes, as well as in extremis on Test debut off the bench last week.

He must have some intestinal fortitude about him, too, for Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, to risk him on this stage.

Laumape’s direct running will be a test for the Lions defence, particularly the Johnny Sexton-Owen Farrell axis.

Oh, Maro Itoje!

There are said to be 25,000 British and Irish supporters in Auckland for the deciding Test. That should a) make it feel like a home game for the away side, and b) make the “Oh, Maro Itoje!” chant deafening.

In the same way “Waltzing O’Driscoll” (to the tune of Waltzing Matilda) became the anthem of the 2001 Lions, the adaptation of White Stripes’ song Seven Nation Army to celebrate Itoje has done the same in 2017.

Even the players have been singing it. And, it could be argued, the 22-year-old lock has yet to even fully live up to his cult status.

His performance in the second Test divided opinion. What cannot be argued is that he will have to be more disciplined when it comes to staying onside this time around if the Lions are to force an unlikely series win.