This is Kieran Read’s big test.
Big because Saturday’s third test against the Lions will be Read’s 100th test for the All Blacks. It’s a mighty achievement, but it’s not what this game will be remembered for.
And it’s not the fact that this will be Read’s 25th test as captain either.
He’s led them out of the tunnel at stadiums big and small around the world – from Dunedin to Durban, Christchurch to Chicago, Newcastle upon Tyne to Paris.
He first led them out at Rome’s Olimpico Stadium – the same place where Sir Peter Snell won gold in the 800m in 1960. That was history.
Saturday could be too.
This test is big for Read because it shapes as the defining match in his tenure as captain – and in the All Blacks’ post-2015 era as they build towards the 2019 World Cup.
Steve Hansen’s already won a World Cup as head coach, guiding the All Blacks to the 2015 title – historic in itself as it was their first away from home and the first time a team has won the trophy back-to-back.
Still boasting many of the heroes from 2011 – Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Keven Mealamu, Richie McCaw, Read, Sonny Bill Williams, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Dan Carter – it could be argued that was still Sir Graham Henry’s team.
That’s not the case now.
“If we are lucky enough to get the job done then that will be great. If we lose, then how do we pick ourselves up? Either scenario is great learning for this group of young men, particularly our leaders, going into 2019.”
– Steve Hansen
The All Blacks who will attempt to beat the Lions on Saturday and secure the series in the process are distinctly Hansen’s boys. This is his team. His captain.
And never before have the coach, captain and senior players in this side been challenged like this without the safety nets of McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Smith et al to help pull them through.
They’ve played 17 tests without those great All Blacks, beating pretty average Wallaby and Springbok teams, losing to Ireland and then beating them, and fending off France in Paris.
They haven’t faced a challenge like this. The Lions are the best team the All Blacks have played since the 2015 World Cup final and this is probably the toughest test they’ll have till the knock out games at the World Cup in Japan in two years’ time.
Hansen knows this.
“If we are lucky enough to get the job done then that will be great,” he said. “Then we have to look at the next challenge and how we react after having a win.
“If we lose, then how do we pick ourselves up? Either scenario is great learning for this group of young men, particularly our leaders, going into 2019.”
Making the challenge even bigger is that the All Blacks are missing some of their best players. Dane Coles hasn’t featured in the series because of concussion and vice captain Ben Smith lasted just 22 minutes of the first test.
The starting midfield from Eden Park is gone. Ryan Crotty pulled his hamstring in the 32nd minute of the first test and Sonny Bill Williams is banned after being red carded 24 minutes into the second test.
The All Blacks almost won that match, despite being down a man, and probably should have drawn it but their ingrained habit of going for the win meant they failed to play safe, allowing the Lions to claw their way back into the match.
Tactically, they got it wrong at the end, with Hansen admitting they should have kicked for the corners, pinning the Lions back.
That is on Read, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett. The leaders; the decision makers.
You can hear the whispers, would Richie have done the same? Would Carter, with Smith and Nonu beside him, have won the match for the All Blacks?
They might have after 2007 because the quarter final loss to France in Cardiff in that year’s World Cup changed everything for that era of All Blacks. It was McCaw’s defining moment. It forced him to change, to get better, to become the captain who won two World Cups.
Will this be Read’s Cardiff?
The Lions have a sniff; a big sniff because they are just one win from making history, from becoming only the second Lions team to beat the All Blacks in a series, matching the feat of 1971.
“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,” coach Warren Gatland said of the Lions’ 24-21 win in Wellington.
“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’.”
He has said all along that winning the series is all that matters and he has stuck to that, riding through the criticism that followed the losses to the Blues and Highlanders.
Gatland knows the Holy Grail is beating the All Blacks. He knows what’s at stake. So too does Hansen.
“Rugby’s been needing something like this for a while,” Hansen said. “It’s now got it, and everyone will be a bit nervy about that because it could either way – and how exciting is that?”