Mako Vunipola may consider himself a very lucky boy for a second time in the last week after retaining his place in the Lions’ No1 jersey for a third Test start of the series.
The Saracens and England prop put his side’s second Test hopes in jeopardy with two reckless late hits on Beauden Barrett, escaping with a yellow card. Yet the fact he went in for a second shot at the All Blacks fly-half minutes after getting away with the first one points to a shaky concept of brinkmanship.
Vunipola gave away four penalties in Wellington and with Warren Gatland demanding better discipline after the concession of eight second-half penalties, he could have sent a message to his players by dropping his loosehead and starting Jack McGrath instead.
With first-choice inside centre Sonny Bill Williams starting a four-week ban following his shoulder charge into Anthony Watson’s head, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had a variety of options to rejig midfield.
In giving Ngani Laumape a first international start seven days after coming off the bench for a Test debut on his home ground at Westpac Stadium, Hansen has further indicated his trust in the potential of the Hurricanes 24-year-old. Laumape was thrown on in the wake of Williams’ red card as New Zealand sacrificed back-rower Jerome Kaino to maintain a full backline — it proved costly as Laumape got sucked in by a clever line from Owen Farrell which opened a gap in the line for Jamie George to burst through on the way to Conor Murray’s second-half try.
Yet Hansen has resisted the temptation to parachute Malakai Fekitoa back into Test duty, instead installing the Highlanders star as a replacement on his recall to the squad.
The world champions are continuing to struggle to find a solution for the absence of Ben Smith in the No15 jersey. Smith was forced out of the opening Test with a concussion and stood down for the rest of the series as a precaution, forcing fly-half Beauden Barrett to full-back as the All Blacks won at Eden Park. Barrett was returned to his playmaking role for the second Test as Israel Dagg switched from wing to 15.
Now Hansen has rejigged his back three in the wake of Waisake Naholo’s concussion, switching Dagg back to the wing and handing Beauden’s kid brother Jordie Barrett his first start in Test rugby. The Lions will look to apply some pressure on the rookie under the high ball, particularly with more rain expected in Auckland.