New Zealand have not lost there since 1994, when the French pinched the spoils in injury time with the "try from the ends of the earth". Auckland, who take on the midweek Lions tomorrow, are no pushovers either and have beaten the Lions six times. With the likes of Sam Tuitupou, Ben Atiga, Daniel Braid and, perhaps, a certain Joe Rokocoko in their line-up, they will provide by far the sternest midweek opposition of the trip.
All things considered, this final week could not be more demanding. Two-nil down in a three-Test series is no place to be, particularly in this country, and with Jonny Wilkinson and Gavin Henson unlikely to feature this weekend - Wilkinson left the field on Saturday with yet another of the "stinger" injuries that routinely affect his neck and shoulder, while Henson suffered concussion making a try-saving tackle on Rico Gear early in the game - the prospect of more major surgery on the élite side is growing by the minute.
Tomorrow's team features some of the tour's obvious underachievers - Denis Hickie and Gordon D'Arcy in the backs; John Hayes and Ben Kay up front - along with genuine Test contenders in Geordan Murphy and Charlie Hodgson, plus the Scottish blind-side flanker Jason White, who flew in last week as a replacement for the stricken Richard Hill. The Auckland coach, Pat Lam, has yet to decide whether to include Rokocoko, the best wing in the world this time a year ago, because he has just returned from Junior All Black duty in Australia.
Predictably, the Lions' record defeat at the weekend has led to a cacophony of triumphalism. Both Graham Henry, the head coach of the All Blacks, and one of his predecessors in the role, John Hart, launched themselves headlong into a celebration of the virtues of Super 12, the southern hemisphere's cross-border provincial tournament - a competition ritually dismissed north of the equator as rugby candyfloss.
"Down here, rugby is an athletic sport," crowed Henry. "What we did in the second Test is what we do in Super 12. The tournament gets a lot of criticism, but this should make a few people appreciate its value." Hart insisted that the New Zealand game was faster and more intense than anything to be seen in Europe, where, he remarked, the onus was on "size, defence and tactical kicking".
As the first reading of the All Blacks' manifesto ahead of the 2007 World Cup, it could hardly have been bettered. But the Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll, still nursing his dislocated right shoulder in a double sling and awaiting an operation tentatively scheduled for next week, was in no hurry to believe it all.
"None of us can deny that the All Blacks turned in an outstanding performance at the weekend," he said yesterday, "but I do not believe they are invincible and I am certain we can get closer to them in the third Test. I certainly do not accept that we all have to play rugby the way the New Zealanders play it. You develop a style that suits the quality of player available to you. If you do not have the forwards with the ball-handling skills of the All Blacks, but who do different things better than them, then that's where you go. There are many ways of playing rugby, not one."
O'Driscoll, still bitterly upset by both the seriousness of his injury and the incident that caused it - the now notorious tackle by Tana Umaga, his opposite number both as player and captain, and Keven Mealamu, the All Blacks hooker, in the opening minute of the Christchurch Test - confirmed that he had spoken to Umaga.
"I still respect him as a player, and I'll still go for a drink with him," he said. "Things happen in rugby. I've been the culprit myself in the past, so once responsibility is accepted, that's it. If certain aspects of this have been dragged out a little too much, it's nothing to do with me."
And the state of mind in the squad, now that the series is lost? "There is no comfort in defeat," he said. "We played our hearts out at the weekend, but we have to hold up our hands and accept that we were beaten by a better side. This week is now a test of character. There is no carrot in front of us and people will be a little more homesick than they might have been, so pride is an even greater factor than usual."
BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS v Auckland (Eden Park, tomorrow): G Murphy (Ireland); M Cueto (England), W Greenwood (England), G D'Arcy (Ireland), D Hickie (Ireland); C Hodgson (England), M Dawson (England); A Sheridan (England), G Bulloch (Scotland, capt), J Hayes (Ireland), S Shaw (England), B Kay (England), J White (Scotland), M Williams (Wales), M Owen (Wales). Replacements: A Titterrell (England), M Stevens (England), B Cockbain (Wales), M Corry (England), C Cusiter (Scotland), R O'Gara (Ireland), S Horgan (Ireland).
AUCKLAND: B Ward; A Nacewa, B Atiga or G Williams, S Tuitupou, J Rokocoko or T Koonwaiyou; T Lavea, S Devine; S Taumoepeau or C Heard, S Telefoni, J Afoa, B Mika, B Williams, J Collins (capt), D Braid, A MacDonald. Replacements: J Fonokalafi, C Heard or N White, K Haiu, J Kaino, T Moa, A Toe'ava, G Williams or B Atiga.Reuse content