Lions unchanged for All Blacks showdown as history beckons
Coach Warren Gatland 'rewards' heroes of Wellington by naming an unchanged 23 for the final Test
The British and Irish Lions have named an unchanged XV for the third and final Test against New Zealand on Saturday - the biggest game of rugby since the 2015 World Cup final.
Coach Warren Gatland has decided to stick with the same team that inflicted on the All Blacks their first home defeat since 2009 as he looks to become only the second coach in history to lead the Lions to a series victory in New Zealand.
The last time that happened was 1971 and if this pride of Lions wishes to emulate their predecessors they will have to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park, a feat no team has managed since France won in Auckland in 1994.
"It is not very often on a Lions tour that you get to pick the same 23 for the following game," said Gatland. "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 ten to 15 minutes [to win the second Test]."
In fact 1993 was the last time that the Lions fielded the same starting XV in consecutive Tests, and on that occasion they lost to New Zealand.
Warning that the expected a "backlash" from New Zealand on Saturday, Gatland nonetheless said: "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."
There will be disappointment in certain quarters at Gatland's decision to stick with the same team. There had been Irish calls for the inclusion of loosehead prop Jack McGrath at the expense of Mako Vunipola, whose indiscipline hurt the Lions last week, and England fans had hoped that Courtney Lawes might have started in the second-row ahead of Alun Wyn Jones, after his impressive performance from the bench. As for the Scots, it means that they have had no representation in the Test series.
New Zealand have made changes after last week with Jordie Barrett selected at full-back for only his second cap. The 20-year-old replaces Israel Dagg who moves across to the right wing in place of the injured Waisake Naholo. In at left-wing is the vastly experienced Julian Savea, recalled to the XV with Rieko Ioane making way. Ngani Laumape takes over in the centre from Sonny Bill Williams, who is suspended for four weeks after his red card in last week's second Test.
Williams' dismissal compounded the misery of the All Blacks last weekend and for coach Steve Hansen it was only his fifth defeat in 71 Tests.
He's not happy, nor is New Zealand, and as is often the case when the All Blacks loss, pressure is being brought to bear on the referee. "I will get into trouble for saying this but the referees need help," said Hansen. "It is a hell of a job for them because there is so much happening. They can't do what we are asking them to do and then they become overly influential in a game. If you have a tight game and it becomes a major factor… it just chips away at the game."
Hansen believes that the referees have been unduly lenient towards the Lions in the series and he also found time to criticise the disciplinary process that saw Williams banned for a month but Sean O'Brien cleared by a panel of wrongdoing. The whining shows that the Kiwis are wounded, and Saturday will show whether the Lions can kill them off.
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)