So this is it. The Lions team has been announced. The big calls have been made. Everything is on the line, this is do or die. Win and the series stays alive for a humdinger of a decider back at Eden Park, lose and everyone would rather go home, than trudge back up to Auckland with tails between legs for potentially another pasting.
So has Gatland and his fellow coaching staff got it right, or spectacularly wrong. As ever, opinion is hugely divided amongst the great and good, and not so good, of the rugby world. No two people think the same, so what chance has Gatland got of pleasing everyone, or indeed anyone?
L Williams, A Watson, J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly, J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong, M Itoje, AW Jones, S Warburton (c), S O’Brien, T Faletau.
Replacements: K Owens, J McGrath, K Sinckler, C Lawes, CJ Stander, R Webb, B Te’o, J Nowell.
There are big calls in a number of positions. Let’s first consider the recall of Johnie Sexton at fly half and a shifting of Owen Farrell to the no 12 slot at the expense of Ben T’eo. Sexton has been steadily improving as the tour has gone on after a very shaky start when he was clearly hugely affected by his competition for the no 10 position with Farrell. In his last outing, he seemed back to his best, aggressive, competitive and running the game, as he so often does. His recall makes good sense, for he is a winner, and his partnership with scrum half Conor Murray is one that is tried and tested on the international scene.
Farrell, on the other hand, coming back from injury was very much short of match practice for the first test and it showed. He was off colour and not his usual confident dominant self. Furthermore, he has played very little international rugby at fly half. However, like Sexton, he is a winner who leads and inspires and clearly the management want him in the side for all those reasons.
To include them both means a change at inside centre, and T’eo can consider himself very unlucky as he played well in the first test and did as well as could have been expected. He was abrasive and competitive, making good ground with ball in hand and nullifying the threat of his opposite number, the talismatic Sonny Bill Williams.
So is the right decision ? Time will tell but on a day when the forecast is for torrential rain, this may well require an astute kicking game, pressing the All Blacks back into the corners and having two footballers at 10 an 12 could be just the right call. Sexton certainly merits his elevation in my opinion and whilst it is something of a surprise to drop T’eo, he remains on the bench and can be thrust into the action at any moment if this plan is not working. However, Farrell never fails to amaze. He is strong of character and invariably proves his doubters and critics wrong.
The rest of the back line remains intact, as largely expected, yet the bench is now full of ‘finishers’. In addition to Rhys Webb and T’eo, Jack Nowell has quite rightly been elevated as a result of his strong performances in the last two midweek matches, so he can bring his fizz and ‘x’ factor to proceedings if required.
Changes were expected in the forwards as Gatland seeks more physicality and impact at the breakdown. Kruis loses out, which is no great surprise as he was unusually poor in the first test and seemed to be feeling the pressure of the environment and making uncharacteristic mistakes. He will come again as he is a quality player but his confidence seems low and that is not the mindset for such a crucial match. Similarly, Itoje’s elevation is not surprising and widely predicted by all the scribes and pundits. There is nothing that this man cannot do and provided he can keep in check his natural exuberance and not give away any silly penalties, he can have a huge effect.
On the other hand, the retention of the old warrior Alan-Wyn Jones is something of a surprise. Clearly the management team want to avoid changing the whole of the second row, and Jones is a whole-hearted competitor who always shows up in the line out and in open play. Furthermore, he is a leader and can call the line outs in the absence of Kruis and will take the pressure off Itoje. Whilst many would have called for Itoje to have been partnered by the arguably more dynamic Lawes or even Henderson, who had a barnstorming last match, that would have meant a completely new line out caller and a lack of experience in such a crucial position at this level. Lawes is on the bench and I see him replacing Jones after about 50 minutes and then adding his dynamism and physicality to proceedings for the last 30 minutes, just hoping that the Lions are still in the contest at this stage of the match. A big call and just about right when considering all the facts.
The back row was also likely to see some changes and the replacement of the former skipper Peter O’Mahony by the tour captain Sam Warburton was again widely predicted. Harsh on O’Mahony possibly, but Gatland and his charges are paid to make big calls. O’Mahony had done incredibly well but the step up to this level has arguably proved just a step too far. Warburton was made tour captain for a reason and now is his chance to prove why. He really does need to have the game of his life, he needs to be everywhere, to be first to the breakdown seeking turnover ball, to be in the All Blacks faces from the first minute and make a right nuisance of himself. Along with O’Brien and Faletau, they arguably hold the key to the outcome of this match. If the three of them can make their presence felt, and disrupt All Black ball, slow it down and force turnovers and mistakes in wet soggy conditions, then the Lions could be in business. However, it is a very big ‘if’, but this is when the very best show what they are made of and Gatland will be hoping that ‘cometh the hour’….. As a fall back, CJ Stander has been named on the bench, another with huge physicality who has been preferred to the outstanding Justin Tupiric, whose offloading skills will have to wait for another day.
So, all in all, some very wise and sensible selections. They may ultimately prove unsuccessful but all have been made following careful consideration of the likely conditions on the day, the confidence, fitness and mindset of the players in question, as well as the need to retain a certain level of experience and leadership on the pitch. It is very easy to criticise, as many ex-players and pundits will do for newspaper and media headlines, far more difficult to get it right, but I for one am prepared to give Gatland and his coaching staff the benefit of any doubt here. Let’s just hope that the chosen players justify their selections, play their hearts out and who knows, just who knows…….
Bring it on.