The final chapter: Lions, All Blacks play deciding 3rd test
The All Blacks and British and Irish Lions enjoyed a moment of calm Friday as they put in place the final elements of their preparation for the third test at Auckland's Eden Park which will decide the three-match series.
After spending the first half of the week reviewing the result of the second test in which the Lions beat New Zealand 24-21 to level the series 1-1, players spent the second half trying to put into perspective a match many expect to be the largest of their careers.
The Auckland test has variously been described as a World Cup final, an unofficial world championship...more creatively, All Blacks scrumhalf T.J. Perenara likened it to game seven of the NBA finals.
Players on both sides agreed it was a match of a magnitude they have not experienced before.
The All Blacks have won the last two World Cup finals and those were occasions which had their own perfect storm of pressure and expectation.
But Saturday's match appears to have something more. World Cup finals, despite the tournament and playoff matches that precede them, are largely one-offs - great occasions but also isolated ones and not always compelling.
And World Cup finals come along every four years, but the Lions last toured New Zealand 12 years ago and are not due to do so again for another dozen years. The Lions have toured here 12 times in 113 years and have only won a series once in that time; the possibility that history will be rewritten on Saturday has added to the sense of anticipation.
The Lions arrived in New Zealand five weeks to great fanfare but their early performances were unimpressive. They lost two of their early mid-week matches against Super Rugby teams but had victories over the Crusaders and the New Zealand Maori which were impressive.
They arrived at the first test in Auckland as underdogs, played above that billing but still lost 30-15 and seemed bound for a series defeat. Few expected the Lions to win the second test in Wellington - given no Lions team had won a test in New Zealand since 1993 - and the prospect the series would remain alive by the third test seemed slight.
But the Lions won impressively. The fact New Zealand played 55 minutes of the match with 14 men after center Sonny Bill Williams became the first All Black sent off in a test in 50 years, had a bearing on the match but did not decide it.
The Lions scored two tries and held the All Blacks tryless in a test for the first time since 2014. In doing so they stamped their credential as a team of world class and breathed life into a series.
Coach Warren Gatland said his Lions had ''poked the bear'' in winning the second test and that he expected a brutal backlash from the All Blacks in Auckland.
The All Blacks have been forced by injuries and Williams' suspension to name an inexperienced backline for the decider, including fullback Jordie Barrett and center Ngani Laumape, who will be making their first test starts.
It's little wonder that players from both sides sought on Friday to try to contain the sense of drama the match has taken on. All Blacks flanker Sam Cane, taking his cue from coach Steve Hansen, assured everyone the sun will come up Sunday regardless of the outcome.
''Whatever happens on Saturday is going to be great for us,'' Hansen said. ''If we win, it'll be good because we'll have come through a moment. If we lose, we'll have to look at ourselves again and say ... what can we take and learn from that?'
''Yes, it will go down in history we lost the series or that we won the series, but it's really irrelevant in the long term of a player's career.''
Lions captain Sam Warburton said he would not allow himself to get caught up in the drama over the decider until Saturday because he feared expending his emotional energy too soon.
''You appreciate it is probably going to be the biggest game we've played in,'' he said.
''But that's what every sacrifice you've made since you were a young kid and decided to be a rugby player is all about ... games like this.''