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Wounded Lions seek to reclaim pride in crucial week for Warren Gatland

The Guardian logo The Guardian 25/06/2017 Robert Kitson at Eden Park

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It does not take a genius to work out the British & Irish Lions face an uphill struggle to win their best-of-three Test series in New Zealand. Everyone knew it would be tough before their tour kicked off and it is an even more fiendish assignment now. The All Blacks lose successive Tests on home soil about as often as it snows in the Sahara.

Nor can the Lions, as they pause momentarily for breath after their 30-15 Test defeat at Eden Park, duck the perception that they were out-thought and outmuscled. They probably needed the All Blacks to be 10-15% below their best; the opposite occurred and the home side’s smart, forceful and direct approach at the breakdown also caught them out. Although the Lions will hope switching cities brings a change of luck, they will also be uncomfortably aware that the All Blacks have the capacity to improve.

The British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland: The British & Irish Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, has plenty to ponder before the second Test against New Zealand on Saturday. © Getty Images The British & Irish Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, has plenty to ponder before the second Test against New Zealand on Saturday.

No wonder Warren Gatland was keen to move the narrative on after his squad had transferred from Auckland down to the nation’s capital. The 2017 tour itinerary was clearly designed by a grasshopper with a short attention span – relocation, relocation, relocation should be the title of the tour DVD – but that suits the Lions this week. There is no time to mope, with everyone fully aware that rapid remedial action is the only solution.

That usually means just one thing: the Lions will come out swinging, desperate to make amends for their Eden Park frustrations. “If I was playing on Saturday night and I felt I was physically dominated, I’d be a little bit disappointed in myself,” Gatland said pointedly. “I’d be doing everything I could physically do the following week to make sure I fixed that area of the game. If I felt my pride was hurt a little bit, I’d be wanting to fix that.”

If only it were so simple. In the Lions’ favour is the fact that France’s Jérôme Garcès will referee the second Test and potentially preside over a different type of contest, one more attuned to northern hemisphere rhythms. But if that merely encourages the All Blacks to revert to attacking wider out, offloading more and forcing the Lions forwards to chase shadows, the series will still be over prematurely unless the Lions convert more of their own try-scoring chances. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if Retallick don’t beat you, Barrett must.

In that respect this is looming as a definitive week in Gatland’s career. Turn things around against the best team in the world inside seven days – with a midweek match against the Super Rugby champions, the Hurricanes, as an aperitif – and his legacy as one of the shrewdest man-managers of his generation will be sealed. Get beaten even more convincingly by a grinning Steve Hansen and the calculated risk he took in accepting this always difficult assignment will be at risk of backfiring. How the beaten team react this weekend will not just reveal plenty about the players; it will also be a sure guide to Gatland’s powers of motivation.

Selection-wise there are certain to be alterations to the pack but no major surgery. Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton appear the best bets to be asked to pep up the Lions’ breakdown threat, with the naming of George Kruis on the bench against the Hurricanes suggesting the Saracen is a less-than-certain weekend starter. If Courtney Lawes, Jack Nowell and George North, conversely, were to have storming games, it might earn them a Test jersey between now and the conclusion of the Test series back in Auckland on Saturday week.

That, at least, is the line the management are pushing. “We know there’s potentially a couple of changes we need to make but we’re not set in stone at the moment,” Gatland said. “We want to see how the team performs on Tuesday night. That’s a big game for them. We’ve got to get the balance right. If we do make changes, we’ve also got to give those who did play on Saturday night the opportunity to potentially redeem themselves.”

If the midweek crew, however, had been hoping for a gentle runabout against the Hurricanes, they are about to be disappointed. Virtually any side in the world would be thrilled to field a back-three of Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Jordie Barrett, none of whom can currently make the All Black first XV.

It is a sign of the times, though, that the input of Romain Poite, the French official set to referee the third Test, will be equally keenly scrutinised by both sets of coaches. “We’ve been happy with the French referees,” Gatland said. “The good thing is that they don’t speak English so they’re probably not so influenced by the media. They just go out and do what’s in front of them. But we can’t be bringing the referee into it. We’ve got to fix things up ourselves.”

The snag is that everyone’s mind’s eye remains full of enduring images from Saturday night: Beauden Barrett’s one‑handed super-scoop, Rieko Ioane leaving the rapid Elliot Daly for dust, Retallick’s omnipresence, Kieran Read’s absurd lack of rust and Aaron Smith’s return to form. If Sean O’Brien’s glorious 36th‑minute try was impossible to overlook, so too was the All Blacks’ desire to make a definitive statement.

They certainly did that – so much so that no one within the growing Lions fan base could have any complaints. One or two home supporters let themselves down amid all the excitement, even shouting abuse at one or two press‑box occupants, but for the most part it was a night to savour. It will not be dull inside the Cake Tin either, with both sides’ memories of Dan Carter’s 33-point masterclass in 2005 still vivid enough. In tennis a 30-15 scoreline is no big deal but, unless the Lions conjure up something spectacular between now and Saturday, it will be game, set and match.

New Zealand B Smith (Cruden, 27); Dagg, Crotty (Lienert‑Brown, 34), SB Williams, Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (Perenara, 56); Moody (Crockett, 54), Taylor (Harris, 67), Franks (Faumuina, 54), Retallick, Whitelock, Kaino (Savea, 47), Cane, Read (capt; S Barrett, 77).

Tries Taylor, Ioane 2. Cons Barrett 3. Pens Barrett 3.

British & Irish Lions L Williams (Halfpenny, 72); Watson, Davies, Te’o (Sexton, 57), Daly; Farrell, Murray (Webb, 68); M Vunipola (McGrath, 52) George (Owens, 68), Furlong (Sinckler, 59), Kruis, AW Jones (Itoje, 48), O’Mahony (capt; Warburton, 54), O’Brien, Faletau.

Tries O’Brien, Webb. Con Farrell. Pen Farrell.

Referee J Peyper (South Africa). Attendance 48,181.

British and Irish Lions' Sam Warburton and New Zealand's Kieran Read lift the Series Trophy after the series is drawn during the third test of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour at Eden Park, Auckland In pics: Lions tour of New Zealand

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