Pressure now on Hansen as Lions, All Blacks eye 3rd test
Only a week ago, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland was a man under pressure, facing a test against the All Blacks that seemed likely not only to decide the three-match series, but to weigh heavily in any assessment of his own career.
Gatland had taken a number of gambles in shaping his lineup for the match at Wellington which the Lions had to win to avoid the fate of all but one of 12 their predecessors — a series defeat in New Zealand.
He was widely criticized for his selection of two playmakers — Johnny Sexton and flyhalf and Owen Farrell at inside center — in an untested combination which was seen as an undue risk in a match of onerous importance.
Gatland was vindicated when the Lions won a thrilling test 24-21 — Farrell kicking the winning penalty three minutes from fulltime. While the outcome of the series is still in the balance, the pressure has lifted and Gatland now can't lose.
He has beaten the All Blacks in a test for the first time in his career as head coach of Ireland, Wales and the Lions and even if the Lions are beaten on Saturday at Auckland, the tour will be counted a success.
"I'm a happy clown," Gatland said recently, in reference to a cartoon in a New Zealand newspaper which, after the first test, depicted him in clown paint and costume.
Seven days later, it is All Blacks coach Steve Hansen who finds himself under pressure. The All Blacks' loss in Wellington was their first to the Lions since 1993; they have records still to keep alive as they have never lost two tests in succession to the Lions and haven't loss a series against the Lions since 1971.
It is Hansen who has now been forced into bold selections, to some extent because of injuries and suspensions but also because of the faltering form of some players.
Despite the All Blacks's vaunted depth he has been left by injuries to Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith, the suspension of Sonny Bill Williams and the setbacks with wingers Reiko Ioane and Waisake Naholo to choose a backline whose inexperience is remarkable in a match of this importance.
Fullback Jordie Barrett and center Ngani Laumape will both be playing only their second tests and starting in a test for the first time in a backline which is four places removed from the one Hansen would have chosen if all of his players were available.
Hansen is not one to show concern, or indeed any emotion, in public. He has called the match "a cracker — the winner takes all." He says the fact it is a series decider "will create its own unique pressures and it's going to be interesting to see how both sides cope with it."
The All Blacks have a proven record under pressure in winning the last two World Cup finals, and the Lions less so. Though they won the third test in Australia in 2013 to win that series 2-1 under Gatland's coaching, the Lions have never won the deciding test of a series in New Zealand.
Gatland, who has named an unchanged side for the final match, remains confident his players will rise to the occasion.
"For a group of players, there is no doubt — we haven't spoken about it yet but maybe we will in the next 24 hours — they have an opportunity to leave a bit of a legacy," Gatland said. "This is an opportunity that we haven't had since 1971. I think there have been 11 tours to New Zealand and the Lions have only won one.
"You get those moments in your life and you don't want those moments to pass you by. That is what big occasions and big sporting events are about."
Hansen counters by saying "every week there's pressure."
"We're expected to win every test match and when we win we're expected to win well," he said. "You've got to embrace that ..."