The British & Irish Lions are facing do-or-die territory this weekend, as they head into a series defining test game against New Zealand. A win for the tourists means it’s all to play for in the third & final encounter in Auckland, while a win for the All Blacks will condemn the Lions to yet another series loss.
O’Mahony’s Fall from Grace
It had been largely expected after the media rounds over the last week, but it was still disappointing to hear Peter O’Mahony had dropped out of the Lions’ 23 after assuming captaincy for the first test. He is replaced by original tour captain Sam Warburton, as the Welsh forward comes into the starting line-up in the slightly more unfamiliar position of blindside flanker.
O’Mahony didn’t enjoy his most influential of games against the All Blacks, but then again, none of the Lions’ pack did. His lineout work was as efficient/strong as ever, but it seems Gatland’s decision has centred around the Lions’ inability to compete at the breakdown – an area Warburton is a specialist in.
It’s a tough one for the Munster man to take, but you know he’s the type of character who will bounce back even stronger the next time he takes to the field.
Another expected change sees Maro Itoje drafted into the starting XV off the back of an impressive bench cameo in the first test. He replaces Saracens’ club mate George Kruis who drops out of the 23 for Courtney Lawes, while Alun-Wyn Jones is lucky to hang onto his spot in the starting line-up.
Despite both Kruis & Jones having poor games last weekend, you felt Kruis’ importance in the lineout and relationship with Itoje at club & country would make him a more enticing option than Jones. However Gatland has kept his faith in the Welsh lieutenant that has served him well before, and the Ospreys lock has a big favour to repay his coach this weekend.
With O’Mahony also dropping out of the 23, the Lions’ lineout will be significantly weaker this weekend. It’s a big risk on Gatland’s behalf, dropping his primary offensive lineout caller (Kruis) and his biggest defensive threat (O’Mahony), handing the reigns instead to the young Itoje. One of the few areas the Lions impressed in last week, they may now struggle to achieve the same comforts they did in Auckland.
Sexton & Farrell
There have been calls for Gatland to trial a Johnny Sexton/Owen Farrell midfield combination since before the Lions boarded a plane, but it’s taken until the second test of the series for the pair to start a game alongside one another. It’s another risk by the head coach, and a move that goes against his traditional values of the 12 jersey – very much symbolic of his determination/desperation to achieve a test victory in New Zealand.
The advantages of playing Sexton alongside Farrell are clear; both are fine kicking options with the ability to get the most out of a dangerous Lions’ backline – two strong playmakers and distributors who can mix & match at will, shifting the point of attack while putting more width on the ball at a quicker pace. They’re also both used to defending as the first in the line, meaning they’ll bring that aggressive linespeed in defence that Andy Farrell lives by.
That aggressive linespeed is something the Lions will need to survive Saturday, as Beauden Barrett & Sonny Bill Williams hold the keys to unlock any midfield in test rugby with the slightest hint of space. Ben Te’o did an excellent job of limiting the damage of Sonny Bill last weekend, and the Blues’ centre will be much happier to see two out-halves marshaling the 10/12 channel. Expect a huge amount of traffic here.
Steve Hansen’s changes in personnel this weekend are both injury enforced, one of which sees Highlanders’ fullback Ben Smith drop out of the remaining games due to symptoms of concussion. Israel Dagg moves to fullback in his place, with Waisake Naholo back into the starting XV on the wing.
This is a move that the Lions will look to exploit, with Naholo lacking the aerial awareness of either Ben Smith or Israel Dagg in that wing position. Conor Murray has been told to kick the leather off the ball all day long, and now that Naholo and Ioane are more isolated on the wings, that will only increase. They can also rely on the dual kicking option of Sexton and Farrell, while Elliott Daly & Jonathan Davies also offer strong left boots outside them.
Heavy rain is forecast on Saturday so we can expect a huge volume of kicks from the Lions’ behalf, but we’re well too aware of the counter attacking threat New Zealand pose – Naholo, Ioane & Dagg are devastating & clinical ball in hand. The Lions need their kicking game to be accurate and refined not only in contestable box-kicks, but in that attempt to find empty space down the back of the 22.
New Zealand’s pack dominated the Lions last weekend – nullifying their scrummaging threat, defending their maul, and defeating them at the breakdown. It felt like the All Blacks were on another wave length, and it really prevented the Lions from cementing any sort of valuable position in the game.
A change is needed if the Lions are to mount any sort of challenge on Saturday, and while Itoje & Warburton are calculated replacements, the entire pack is going to have to move their performance up a notch from their last outing. They’ll need to prevent New Zealand from enjoying the same clean ball they received all last week, and slow the game down to a pace that suits them.
Kieran Read showed no signs of rust on his return, Brodie Retallick continues to be a standard setter in the second row, Sam Cane added further to his growing reputation – the Lions are up against the best of the best, and they’ll need to be able to live with that if they’re to deliver a test win.
Dan Carter Beauden Barrett Show
The last time the British & Irish Lions visited New Zealand there was a young out-half coming through the All Blacks’ ranks – Dan Carter. In the second test of that series Carter announced himself as a world beater, delivering one of the finest individual fly-half performances in a rampant All Blacks victory.
Fast forward 12 years and we have another young Kiwi fly-half who has made quite the impression in his early career thus far. Beauden Barrett has stepped out of Dan Carter’s shadow and cast a wide berth as he forges his own legacy. One of the brightest and most exciting talents to play the game, the Hurricanes man will want to use this tour to prove his position as the world’s best.
An injury to Ben Smith last week caused a backline shuffle that saw Barrett move to the 15 shirt, and the Lions were lucky in a sense. The threat Barrett offers as first receiver is incredible, and he has the ability to make and cause all sorts of problems for Warren Gatland’s team. Back in the fly-half position this weekend, it’ll be interesting to see what footnote he’s going to leave on the 2017 Lions tour.
This second test is big for many reasons. Not only will this game potentially decide the series, it could also have a massive impact on the future of the British & Irish Lions as a concept. It’ll become a defining factor in Gatland’s legacy as a coach, and a defining stage in the career of many of the players on the pitch. There’s a lot at stake, and that won’t be lost on any of the parties involved.
For the Lions, it would be a massive upset if they were to deliver a victory over the All Blacks on this tour. They’ve been written off from day one, and the excellence of New Zealand hasn’t allowed much room to speculate otherwise. But away from their fortress of Eden Park, the Lions may have a bit more belief in what they can do on that pitch. It’ll take the game of their lives to do it, but they cannot be short of motivation.
It’s difficult to imagine anything other than an All Blacks win, but the occasion is there – let’s hope the game arrives with it.