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Tour on the line for Gatland's Lions

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 30/06/2017

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How much have the British and Irish Lions learned in the space of a week?

The answer to that question will determine whether the 2017 team send their series against the All Blacks into a third and deciding Test - or if they return home with the same unwanted outcome as 11 of the 12 Lions teams that have toured New Zealand before them.

Coach Warren Gatland's fate and, some believe, reputation will be determined in Saturday's second Test in Wellington.

He and his team have spoken of their desperation to prove they are better than the 30-15 first-Test loss in Auckland, where they had planned to impose themselves physically on the world champions.

Captain Sam Warburton returns as skipper, giving the Lions two openside flankers, while starting lock Maro Itoje is also a mobile presence at the breakdown. © Mark Nolan/Getty Images Captain Sam Warburton returns as skipper, giving the Lions two openside flankers, while starting lock Maro Itoje is also a mobile presence at the breakdown. Instead, it worked the other way, with Gatland out-coached on the night by Steve Hansen, who got his All Blacks running hard and close to the ruck, relentlessly turning the tourists around.

"It was a big step up in terms of the intensity and pressure that the All Blacks play the game with," Gatland conceded.

"In fairness, they played exceptionally well against us. They were very direct in the way played.

"The guys would have gained a lot from that. We've experienced it now and we should cope better with it."

Gatland has responded with three important personnel switches, seemingly aimed at expanding their game and slowing the All Blacks down.

Captain Sam Warburton returns as skipper, giving the Lions two openside flankers, while starting lock Maro Itoje is also a mobile presence at the breakdown.

They now boast twin playmakers in Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, in a move that could prove a master stroke or may prove their undoing if the hosts get to run at them all night in what is forecast to be wet conditions.

A key will be winning the penalty count, which has had a correlation to the result in all eight of the Lions tour matches so far.

Conceding 11 penalties to New Zealand's six, Gatland's men couldn't build the possession and territory pressure that befuddled quality opponents such as the Crusaders, Chiefs and Maori All Blacks.

Gatland says attitude will be more important than tactics.

"We played some good rugby and when we did keep the ball we stressed them and put them under pressure," he said.

"But we've got to match that physicality. It's a big challenge for our tight five to step up."

Gatland won't say if the match is his biggest of a professional coaching career which stretches back more than 20 years.

However, he knows some of his players regard it that way.

"It's not really about me, it's about the players and the team but as coaches I think we are all aware that it's a pretty massive game.

"Winning on Saturday is getting to a cup final and then next week we will have a cup final. It's definitely a knockout game, we're all pretty aware of that."

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