Friday, 7 July 2017

Possible Rugby Immortality Awaits Gatland Lions

All Blacks return to the nation's capital this weekend for the final meeting in the three test series with the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park. A venue where the hosts are unbeaten in 23 years and the place that Graham Henry and Richie McCaw finally secured the rugby world cup in 2011. A triumph that was first achieved in the inaugural world cup in 1987 at the same venue The history and the statistics favour the home nation in Saturday's third est series decider with the Lions hopes revived by a most unexpected win in Wellington last saturdy. For the historic contest Warren Gatland has chosen to field an unchanged side leaving no room for a return for Peter O'Mahony who captained the opening test a coupe of weeks ago and Sam Warburton remaining also as the Lions captain.

The Welshman missed the series-clinching third Test win over Australia in 2013 with a hamstring injury.

"It feels like all the sacrifice over the past four years and all the little things I have done have come to this moment," Warburton told BBC Sport.

Warburton was on the bench for the opener in Auckland, which ended 30-15 to the hosts, having suffered an ankle injury against the Provincial Barbarians, but returned to the starting XV for the thrilling 24-21 triumph in Wellington.

The 28-year-old has been beset by injuries in recent years, missing six weeks at the end of the domestic season with a knee injury, while in October 2016 he suffered a fractured cheekbone that put him out of action for three weeks.

"I am delighted that my body has held up more than anything," said the Cardiff Blues flanker. "That is half the battle with me, my fitness.

"I was delighted when I heard my name read out for the third Test and to have the chance to finish a Test series and potentially to win it.

"For me four years ago does feel like unfinished business because I was gutted I could not play that third game - even though I was over the moon and it was a career highlight to win, you still, as a player want to be involved in that and have your small contribution to the game.

"So for the past four years in the back of my mind I have set my sights on this tour and I wanted to be in the Test team and play in the last game."

The British and Irish Lions have named an unchanged team and bench for the third and decisive Test against New Zealand. It means they will field the same starting XV in consecutive Tests for the first time since 1993.

A victory on Saturday at Eden Park would give the Lions only their second ever series win in New Zealand.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland, who saw his side win 24-21 win in Wellington last week to level the series, said: "It is not very often on a Lions tour that you get to pick the same 23 for the following game.

"We felt we should reward the players for the result and the courage that they showed in coming from behind from 18-9 down, digging themselves out of a hole and then finishing strongly in that last 10 to 15 minutes [to win the second Test]."

Gatland has decided to retain the 10-12 partnership of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell from the second-Test win on Saturday.  The creative duo gives the Lions more attacking options and Gatland has clearly decided that is more important than shoring up a defensive channel that was targeted by the All Blacks last time out.

Ngani Laumape - who came off the bench to replace the red-carded Sonny Bill Williams and was sent down that channel with some success in Wellington - will make his first start for the All Blacks on Saturday.

England loose-head Mako Vunipola - the target of criticism after an ill-disciplined second half that saw him sin-binned last weekend - retains his number one shirt. Wales' Liam Williams has shrugged off injury concerns to once again start at full-back.

Gatland said the Lions are expecting a "backlash" from the world champions in Auckland but added: "We still feel there is another level in us.

"This is a huge chance for this group of players to show their abilities and reap the benefits of the work everyone has put in. It is their chance to make Lions history."

Lions: Liam Williams (Wales); Anthony Watson (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Elliot Daly (England); Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland); Mako Vunipola (England), Jamie George (England) Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) Sam Warburton (capt, Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

Replacements: Ken Owens (Wales), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (England), Courtney Lawes (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Te'o (England), Jack Nowell (England)

New Zealand: Jordie Barrett; Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read.

Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa.

#AllBlacks #LionsOfficial 

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