Warren Gatland has rolled the dice on the British & Irish Lions’ do or die second Test against the All Blacks by trusting Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell to keep the Test series alive beyond this Saturday in a playmaking midfield partnership, writes Simon Lewis.
The Lions head coach has also reinstalled tour captain Sam Warburton in the back row but it has come at the expense of Munster and Ireland hero Peter O’Mahony, who led the tourists in the opening Test at Eden Park last weekend, a 30-15 defeat that has given world champions New Zealand the chance to wrap the three-Test series up at the Westpac Stadium this Saturday.
Warburton is seen by the Lions coaching staff as having a bigger, stronger presence over the ball at the breakdown, an area the All Blacks won hands down last Saturday with their head coach Steve Hansen praising his side’s ability to get “down and dirty” to gain victory. To further counteract the huge physical impact the home side enjoyed in Auckland as the Lions consistently lost the gainline, Gatland has also beefed up his second row by replacing George Kruis with his more dynamic and athletic Saracens and England team-mate Maro Itoje, though fellow starting lock Alun Wyn Jones was also ineffective yet retains his place.
Farrell started that game in Auckland at fly-half with Ben Te’o at inside centre to combat Sonny Bill Williams in midfield and Sexton held in reserve, coming off the bench in the second-half for Te’o as Farrell moved into his England team-mate’s position at 12 vacating the out-half position for the Irishman.
The ploy had worked well for the Lions in the second week of the tour against the Crusaders in Christchurch when Sexton and Farrell combined as a 10-12 following an injury to Jon Davies, Te’o moving out one place to outside centre as Gatland’s side defeated this season’s unbeaten Super Rugby leaders in their third game, the most accomplished performance of the tour to that point. Yet at Eden Park against the All Blacks, their partnership was formed as the Lions were chasing the game and it failed to spark the desired effect of asking questions of the home side’s defence.
Furthermore, when Te’o went off, it also brought opposing 12 Williams into the game as the starting Lions centre’s physical match-up was lost.
Gatland, though, will be hoping starting with two playmakers from the start will give Sexton and Farrell a better opportunity to impose themselves on the game in Wellington while also pairing the fly-half with his regular international half-back partner Conor Murray as the Lions try to get their back three of Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson and full-back Liam Williams more involved.
The head coach will also need a big reaction from his forwards seven days after the All Blacks won most of the collision and imposed themselves in the scrum. Gatland demanded the wounded Lions pack show some pride in the second Test and will look to a fired up pack to be better equipped mentally and physically in dealing with the rampaging All Blacks on the gainline.
The head coach delayed naming his team last night to give him and his assistant coaches more time to assess the contributions of players involved in Tuesday’s 31-31 draw with the Hurricanes at the Westpac and that influence may be seen in a changed replacements’ bench.
All Blacks boss Hansen has been forced to make changes to his backline following first-half injuries to full-back Ben Smith (concussion) and centre Ryan Crotty (hamstring) and if anything has emerged with a more physical group of players behind the scrum. Waisake Naholo returns to the wing having been omitted from the first Test squad despite a powerhouse display for the Highlanders earlier in the tour, as Israel Dagg covers for Smith at full-back, while Anton Lienert-Brown moves off the bench to outside centre as Crotty’s replacement, partnering Sonny Bill Williams.
Lienert-Brown’s replacement as outside back cover, too, has more recent history with the Lions, with the Hurricanes Ngani Laumape handed his chance of a Test debut on home ground this weekend, four days after his second-half try in the corner helped to tie the game.
“Both Waisake and Ngani are coming into the Test side following outstanding performances against the Lions for their respective Super franchises,” Hansen said last night.
“Whilst we were happy with the win last weekend, we know that it was just a start, in what is a three-Test Series. That means the job is far from done. It’s going to require us to take our game to a higher level. It’s going to be very demanding, physically and mentally, on both sides.
“We’re aware the British and Irish Lions have their backs to the wall and will chuck everything at us to keep themselves alive in the Series. They are a quality side who we respect immensely. In reality, last week’s Test could’ve gone either way had they taken more of their chances. Our job will be to make sure we shut down their counter-attack better than we did last weekend and at the same time, win the critical moments across the 80 minutes. As always, it’ll start with the battle of the tight five.”
If the Lions are going to up the physicality stakes, expect the All Blacks to turn a few screws themselves.