Before the Hurricanes……….Lions Tour 26 June 2017

The dust is beginning to settle after the First Test. Much has been written since, opinions have been proffered by the great and good of the rugby world. There seems to be a common theme and that is that the All Blacks were phenomely good and took their chances, reflecting their status as the number one rugby team in the world but that the Lions played their part in an excellent match yet ultimately were outgunned up front, made too many mistakes and failed to take their opportunities when presented.

So, what next for the second test? Do the Lions need to make any changes to their team and if so, who and where ?  The backs all came out with credit albeit Farrell was a little off his game and there might be an argument for bringing Sexton in instead. Webb made a good impression off the bench and added a more attacking dimension, albeit his game management sometimes is a little lacking and Murray should stay at scrum half, especially as his box kicking was invariably right on the money and caused the All Blacks some difficulties on occasions. I might be inclined to add another finisher onto the bench instead of Halfpenny and it is interesting that Jack Nowell has been selected at full back for the final midweek match against the Highlanders on Tuesday. The Lions are now dining in the last chance saloon and if they are to win the series, the next Test is a must win and they might have to think outside the box.

The forwards selection is going to need some more thought. Whilst everyone gave their best it simply wasn’t good enough. They were outfought and outmuscled and some players made some uncharacteristic errors. Pressure can do strange things to even the best players. Most pundits seem to think that there should be some minor changes, but that Gatland should resist  making wholesale changes.

There seems to be a good case for selecting Itoje in place of Alan-Wyn Jones and whilst Kruis was disappointing, he probably warrants retaining his place, just, but Lawes has been outstanding and definitely deserves a place on the bench. Itoje and Lawes would both add a physical dimension to the Lions play.

The back row may need some adjustment too. Toby Faletau’s place is one whose position is not in jeopardy but there may be a question mark over the two O’s, O’Mahony and O’Brien. Whilst both performed admirably in their own way and O’Brien scored a fabulous try and lasted the full 80 minutes, is this the best combination to beat the All Blacks ? For all their efforts, the Lions were “duffed up” at the breakdown. CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric and James Haskell have all been selected to start in the midweek team and have an opportunity to put their hands up for selection for the second Test match. Warburton must also be in close contention to start. I suspect that Gatland will want to see how the midweek trio perform and further analyse the All Black’s performance from the first test before finalising his second test team. Prior to the tour, CJ Stander was considered by most to be a certain test starter and he started this tour well albeit was very much off colour in his second match, which effectively cooked his goose for selection for the first test match, allied to the impressive displays of the Irish O’s.

The Lions did actually defend very well for the most part in the first test, and it was really just carelessness and switching off at critical moments when the All Blacks had been awarded penalties that led to the first two tries. Any changes that Gatland makes cannot weaken the line out or defensive solidly of the Lions, albeit he will be seeking a bit more physicality.

Gatland has now selected his team for the final midweek game against the Hurricanes and it doesn’t contain too many surprises. North, Joseph,  Henshaw and Nowell, in the backs, have another chance to stake their claim but I don’t see any of them as starters in the second test.

Of the forwards, Lawes and all the back row will all be looking for big games and the front row of Marler, Best and Cole will all think that they have an outside chance of inclusion in the test match squad.

So, all to play for which makes these midweek matches very meaningful, which has not always been the case on previous tours.

Interestingly, the All Blacks have released Julian Savea, Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape back to the Hurricanes for the game, while Nehe Milner-Skudder also starts, so this will be another big test for the Lions, especially the outside backs when having to defend against such notorious finishers, all of whom will have a point to prove themselves.

As ever, I really can’t wait.

British and Irish Lions v Hurricanes : Jack Nowell (England), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), George North (Wales), Dan Biggar (Wales), Greig Laidlaw (Scotland), Joe Marler (England), Rory Best (Ireland, captain), Dan Cole (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Courtney Lawes (England), James Haskell (England), Justin Tipuric (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland).

Replacements: Kristian Dacey (Wales), Alan Dell (Scotland), Tomas Francis (Wales), Cory Hill (Wales), George Kruis (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), Jared Payne (Ireland).

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