Sam Warburton (pictured) will lead the Lions in the Second TestJeanfrancois Beausejour

If last weekend’s game wasn’t officially, the second Test against the All Blacks this Saturday certainly is a must-win game for the Lions. Having lost the first Test, anything other than a Lions win will see the final game of the tour rendered something of a dead rubber.

Last weekend they went down 30-15 in a thrilling game, having shown glimpses of brilliance but ultimately falling well short. They scored possibly one of the greatest international tries ever but were undone by directness of New Zealand’s play and were handed a breakdown master-class.

However, despite the 15-point deficit, the All Blacks were not at their best. Their last try, in particular, came from a careless Lions error when Liam Williams missed a catch and the debutant winger Ioane outpaced Elliot Daly. You make your own luck, but this seemed a tad fortunate. Certainly, the Lions can work on cutting out such basic errors. Yet New Zealand were certainly the better team. Their pack outplayed their northern hemisphere counterparts, rubbishing all of the pre-match chat that the Lions forwards would overpower them, and scrum-half Aaron Smith dictated the game in a way that Conor Murray could only dream of.

Given that the All Blacks notoriously get better as the summer tours go on, to win just one match in this series will be an historic achievement. Kiwi head coach Steve Hansen has made two changes to his side from last week, bringing in wing-cum-wrecking-ball Waisake Naholo and explosive centre Anton Lienert-Brown for the injured Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty. Ngani Laumape comes onto the bench, too; Super Rugby’s top try-scorer this season. It ain’t getting any easier.

New Zealand’s strength in depth is such that they can still afford to leave Julian Savea – the man with the best try-scoring rate ever in international rugby – out of the match-day 23 altogether.

Warren Gatland has made 4 changes to his starting XV in an attempt to take their game to the next level, with Maro Itoje replacing George Kruis, Sam Warburton replacing Peter O’Mahony, Sexton coming in at 10 and Farrell taking Te’o’s place at inside centre. Kruis and O’Mahony drop out of the 23 entirely, with England’s Courtney Lawes and Ireland’s CJ Stander set to provide real impact from the bench. Jack Nowell also replaces Leigh Halfpenny in the No.23 shirt, after two strong midweek performances. Nowell is much more of an impact player than Halfpenny so this looks to be a sensible move, though Jonathon Joseph will feel pretty unlucky not to have made the squad for the second week in a row. Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te’o complete what looks to be a very strong bench.

The key thing will be how Gatland uses it. Last week he left it far too late. The Lions were getting hammered by the start of the final quarter, and yet Gatland waited until the 68th minute to bring on Rhys Webb. When he came on he lifted the pace of the game but it was too little too late. Murray had kicked expertly, but he lacks the pace of Webb so I hope that we see the Welshman a little earlier this weekend.

Johnny Sexton will start at fly-half alongside Owen Farrell Pierre Selim

In the midweek game against the Hurricanes this week, the bench was barely used at all. It was desperately needed as legs were starting to tire, but Gatland refused to make substitutions. Why? Because 6 of the 8 players on the bench were those controversially called up because of their geographical proximity to New Zealand last week. In a post-match interview Gatland admitted that they had agreed not to use those players unless forced to by injury. Quite what sense this makes I am not sure. In fact, it belittles their call-ups even further. Yes, you only become a Lion when you take to the field, but how demeaning is it for those players for Gatland to openly admit that they are simply bench-warmers.

Had he planned this better, Gatland could have called up the likes of Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury, Cian Healy and Danny Care earlier in the tour, and had them ready to play in any game necessary. Instead, the Lions surrendered a 14-point lead to draw 31-31 despite them having played very well for large parts. The 6 players called up have left the squad now with, I am sure, very mixed emotions about their Lions experience.

Of greater interest, however, are those changes to the Test starting XV. The introduction of Itoje and Warburton is surely aimed at combating the All Blacks’ breakdown strength, whilst they lose nothing in terms of leadership. What is surprising, though, is the retention of Alun Wyn Jones. Frankly, I thought he was poor last weekend. He suffered a big knock during the first half but played on, albeit fractionally off the pace. He brings vast amounts of experience and is a strong leader but he lacks the athleticism and dynamism of both the New Zealand and other Lions second-rows.

The Lions needed more power up front after last weekend and, though Kruis didn’t have his best game, I would have dropped Jones and replaced him with Itoje. The Itoje-Kruis combo has proved itself time and again for Saracens and England, so dropping Kruis is a risk. What makes Jones’ inclusion even more surprising is the fact that Lawes and Henderson – the other two second rows in the squad – have played so well over the course of the tour. Lawes has done enough to get himself onto the bench, but Gatland’s loyalty to Jones has cost the others the chance of a Lions test cap. Only time will tell if the cost will be even greater.


Mountain View

British and Irish Lions: Time to Roar

The other big surprise is that Gatland has opted for the Sexton-Farrell combination in midfield. They played well – if not brilliantly – together during part of the Crusaders game earlier in the tour, but when they switched to this system in the second-half last weekend, any hope they had of getting back into the game seemed to disappear. Te’o had been one of the Lions’ stand-out players. He managed his opposite number – a man going by the name of Sonny-Bill Williams – superbly and it was only once Te’o had been replaced that the All Blacks star actually came into the game. Whether Farrell will be able to perform the same job remains to be seen.

What this set-up will give them is a stronger kicking game. In Murray, Sexton, Farrell, Davies and Daly the Lions have a back-line that can kick very well. In the wet and blustery conditions in Wellington this will be important. If they can turn the All Blacks, and play the game in their half, they might be able to exert their dominance through driving mauls and in the pack. That said, the All Blacks handled the maul threat last week with ease, so there is no reason why it will be any different on Saturday.

The Sexton-Farrell axis is certainly an unknown entity – which could prove advantageous – but it is so unknown that you might question how well the Lions know it themselves. With Te’o at 12 they had a direct runner in midfield to get them on the front foot and to break the gainline, but with Farrell there you feel like they might try to go around, or over, the defence instead. It is going to be a completely different game plan. England have used it to great effect under Eddie Jones but it is the first time that these two have started together.

Something needed to change, and you can’t say that Gatland hasn’t been bold. If it works, it will be seen as a stroke of genius but, if it doesn’t, it’s going to be game, set and match to New Zealand.

Sponsored links