Ollie Phillips: If Warren Gatland had a crystal ball pre-tour, this is exactly how he'd have wanted it heading into a series decider

 
Ollie Phillips
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Back-to-back series wins with the Lions would be a major feather in Gatland's cap (Source: Getty)

Opportunity knocks and immortality beckons. I cannot believe we’re talking about the prospect of the British and Irish Lions potentially beating the mighty New Zealand in their own back yard.

What an achievement it would be. A patchwork outfit turning over the best and most consistent side in the history of world sport would be truly remarkable. Those 23 Lions have the chance to write history.

The fact they have already won a Test against the All Blacks is in itself a huge achievement and I expect a backlash from the world champions in Auckland on Saturday. It is New Zealand after all.

Last week’s defeat in Wellington was their first failure on home soil in eight years, while not since 2011 have the All Blacks lost back-to-back Tests.

That said, if the Lions were going to ask for a set of circumstances to occur which would facilitate such an unbelievable feat, everything has pretty much fallen into place.

Flanker Sean O’Brien did not get banned after his citing, while New Zealand powerhouse centre Sonny Bill Williams was hit with a four-week suspension following his red card at the Westpac Stadium.

In addition, the hosts have had to make changes to their back-line. Lions head coach Warren Gatland, meanwhile, has the luxury of naming an unchanged match-day squad.

The pressure is increasing on the hosts and little chinks are starting to appear in the PR machine around the All Blacks. It is also Kieran Read’s 100th Test appearance tomorrow – what a parade that is to rain on.

The big one for me, though, is that the game is at Eden Park, where New Zealand have not lost since 1994. If this jaw-dropping feat is going to happen then it seems written in the stars that it should happen there.

Focusing on the All Blacks’ selection, if you had given Gatland a crystal ball pre-tour and it told him they would be handing two players – Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett – their full debuts at 12 and 15 in a series decider, he would have been thrilled.

That is a golden opportunity to exploit. The Lions however, cannot rest on their laurels as the All Blacks oversee a production line of the finest and most incredible rugby players on the planet.

The tourists will no doubt target Barrett with high balls and also ask questions of recalled wing Julian Savea, as there is a potential weakness there with him not being so sharp underneath it.

From a Lions perspective, it’s a massive bonus that Gatland has been able to select the same XV. There have been no injuries and he can build consistency.

There were some changes that I half-wanted. I would have liked to see Ben Te’o come in at inside centre and Owen Farrell revert to fly-half, where he played in the first Test.

That would mean Johnny Sexton missing out. I had reservations over Sexton’s selection for the second Test and, while he played exceptionally well, I still feel Te’o’s physicality and punch through the middle would be a huge asset.

I also thought prop Mako Vunipola might be on the bench. He’s an outstanding player but he gave away so many penalties last week and I feel he might have more of an impact as a replacement.

All in all though, a better script could not be in the process of being written. Should the Lions beat New Zealand to claim successive series victories that would be staggering. Hats would most certainly need to be tipped.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.@OlliePhillips11

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