8 Jul 2017

It’s going to be one heck of a game

9:32 am on 8 July 2017

We believe in miracles, and yes, we're giving it the full monty. Third test? Why not.

All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock & Ardie Savea prepare for a scrum in the second Lions Test.

All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Ardie Savea prepare for a scrum in the second Lions Test. Photo: Photosport NZ

Too right, said the Sun. "The Lions can steamroller wounded All Blacks and become legends by inflicting their first defeat at Eden Park since 1994. I reckon this lot can do it."

"Lions have what it takes to claim immortality," was the word in the Irish Times.

Even The Telegraph fell for it. Their chief sports writer, in New Zealand, (shock, horror, not SW19) claiming these Lions have earned the right to believe, after completing one of the great rugby upsets.

"In eight months the All Blacks have lost to Ireland and the British and Irish Lions. By any measure this is a crack in the wall of an empire.

"For it to fall, Warren Gatland's men will have to cure their disciplinary incontinence, overcome New Zealand's monumental 23-year unbeaten record at Eden Park and subdue for a second time back to back world champions who will be stung into a fearsome response in Auckland."

So, a groundswell of enthusiasm among the press pack. The sceptics - and they were legion - won over by the ambition of a pride of Lions largely written off before this "suicidal" tour.

Amid the upbeat forecasts of a monumental triumph, there were words of caution, notably from legendary Welsh lock Willie-John McBride, a member of that famous 1971 Lions team that toppled the mighty ABs for the first and only time.

"You've got to be realistic," he told BBC Radio 4. "They only won [the second test] in the last few minutes against 14 men." But it was going to be "one heck of a game".

Indeed. Gatland is all over the back pages, with few dissenters to his unchanged side. Liam Williams, who missed training before the Lions returned to Auckland from their Queenstown R&R, getting the thumbs up at full-back, likewise Mako Vunipola at loosehead prop and Johnny Sexton maintaining his 10-12 partnership with Owen Farrell. And with flanker Sam Warburton looking to become the first Lions captain to preside over successive winning tours, it is, as reported in the Scotsman, "their chance to make Lions history".

So, fit as Mallee bulls and about as feisty (the Sun, again, on Friday gleefully reporting a bustup during training), Gatland says his players are physically equipped to handle whatever is thrown at them on Saturday and will be disappointed if they now fail to win the series.

We're ready for it, he told The Guardian.

"There's going to be an improvement in the All Blacks but it's something we don't think is going to be a shock to us."

Come what may, the coach appears to have cemented his reputation after early wobbles from the hacks, most pointedly in his homeland where many were quick to write him off as a failure.

The Telegraph puts it down to Gatland ditching 'warrenball' to outplay the All Blacks and earn respect, though the man himself rubbished that one from the get-go. Surely that debate has been a long time dead.

The considered opinion of The Guardian's The Breakdown, meanwhile, is that win, lose or draw this tour has enhanced Gatland's reputation.

"Whatever the result in the decider against New Zealand, those who have derided the Lions coach's methods as smash and drab have underestimated him."

Clown time, it seems, is over. And according to the Irish Times, the nature of the tour and the series so far has set up the climax perfectly.

But the hour cometh, and now is. And if you're a Lions fan, pray again for some of that biblical Kiwi


* Mick Reid is an Australian journalist who has called Old Blighty home for too long. A late convert to the oval ball game, he has worked at the past three Rugby World Cups and considers himself a neutral - of sorts.

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