Warren Gatland says his British & Irish Lions players can go on and win the series after their dramatic 24-21 success against New Zealand in the second Test. The Lions head coach is wary, nevertheless, of a ferocious response from the All Blacks on Saturday, acknowledging the Lions have “poked the bear” with their victory in Wellington.
The Lions have transferred to the south island for a couple of days’ relaxation and recuperation but are confident they can improve further in the decisive third Test in Auckland. “Yes, we have poked the bear but hopefully the wounded Lion from last week is still recovering as well,” said Gatland, suitably encouraged by the evidence of the first two Tests.
“This is the best team in the world and, for two Test matches, they really haven’t stressed us. They have squeezed us and made us give away penalties but we haven’t seen the expansive rugby that the ABs are known for. We’ve coped with that and, if we can continue to improve in other areas, then we are going to see, hopefully, a great Test match.”
The Lions will have Sean O’Brien, who is free to play after escaping a ban having being cited for an alleged swinging arm to the head of Waisake Naholo, and Gatland feels the Lions now have some genuine momentum. “Saturday was pretty massive for all of us: for the future of the Lions, for the team, for everyone involved; to go 1-1 with no one expecting that. Now [we can] go to Eden Park thinking: ‘Actually, if we put our best foot forward and play to our ability, we are capable of winning that Test match and the series.’”
Gatland, even so, is demanding better discipline and an improved kicking game compared with the second Test, in which New Zealand were reduced to 14 men following the first-half dismissal of Sonny Bill Williams. “There were a lot of things I wasn’t happy about,” Gatland said. “I wasn’t happy about some of the penalties and the discipline. I am happy we got ourselves out of a hole and showed some real character and courage and I am happy with our physicality but we’ve got to make sure we don’t give away stupid and soft penalties. Key players were guilty of that.”
The head coach, a proud Kiwi himself, will also advise the squad that winding up the All Blacks in the build-up to the big game is not a good idea. “They love that. They don’t often get the opportunity to have pressure put on them and, when they do, they thrive on it. Hopefully we don’t give them any ammunition this week and concentrate on ourselves because they will be using anything they can to motivate themselves.”
The All Blacks will have to do without Williams, banned for four weeks for striking Anthony Watson’s head with his shoulder, but the Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree has defended Mako Vunipola, who was sent to the sin‑bin for a heavy challenge on Beauden Barrett. “Mako’s a physical player but he’s not a dirty player,” Rowntree said.
Gatland also says his players will not get carried away and misbehave on their short break in Queenstown. “I don’t envisage that being an issue whatsoever. These players are true professionals; they’ll have a couple of quiet beers. On the last two tours we’ve gone away somewhere, freshened them up and had a couple of light sessions later in the week. That’s worked really well for us and hopefully it’ll do that again. We’ll talk to the medics and the conditioners and then start thinking about the team.”
Alun Wyn Jones, who led the Lions in the decisive third Test victory against Australia in Sydney four years ago, also reckons a brief period of rest is key. “We know the intensity, given what’s at stake, will go up again like it did four years ago and you imagine very little will change,” the Welsh lock forward said. “I’ve made the point we need to enjoy our victory and then get ready for next week.”