The final test match lineups are in for both New Zealand and the British & Irish Lions. Eden Park. Auckland. Winner take all. A fitting finale to the tour but will the decision of Lions head coach Warren Gatland to retain his starting fifteen from last week pay off. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.
Vunipola inclusion a surprise
I will be honest and say that Mako Vunipola is incredibly lucky to retain his starting spot in the side. Vunipola struggled at scrum time and frustrations from this under performance led to an erratic display leaking multiple penalties and a sin bin cameo in the second half.
What does the selection say for the rest of the British & Irish Lions squad? Gatland and management have essentially said that it is perfectly fine to leak penalties and that discipline issues on the pitch are not put in check. When you consider the reason for some of the midweek Lions tour omissions earlier in the tour due to high penalty count, this smacks of inconsistent team selection.
There was a perfect opportunity to freshen up the front five. It is going to be a massive ask for the front three to again front up on the third consecutive weekend. The abrasive nature of the test series means that bodies will be sore, fatigue will be prevalent and lack of focus and concentration not far away. Jack McGrath was a player who would have made an impact this weekend from the start.
Jamie George at hooker will look to Itoje, Jones as his primary lineout jumpers. As mentioned in my blog last week, the lack of a third lineout jumper in the pack is a concern. Faletau was admirable in fulfilling these duties but New Zealand a week further into this test series will surely target this set piece this weekend.
Itoje is going to have to produce a superlative display for the Lions to win this contest. The Saracens standout is going to have to take the fight to New Zealand in his work rate and ball carrying as there are concerns with the scrum and ability to setup a sufficient platform for the British & Irish Lions to create scoring opportunities deep in New Zealand territory.
The scrum exchanges thus far have seen New Zealand with the slight edge and with Romain Poite in charge this weekend, early scrum advantage could be decisive. A less than fresh front Lions three is not inspiring confidence so bench options will be decisive in the prop positions particularly in the second half.
The back row options are around familiar lines. Warburton did a super job slowing New Zealand ball but with dry conditions forecast in Auckland this weekend, quick ruck ball could be unavoidable which will be bring its own set of unique challenges. Reid, Cane and Kaino will look to set the marker early.
The half-back combination is the same as last weekend. Murray and Sexton are going to have to expect some rough treatment this weekend. The pack protected both players well last weekend but I sense that New Zealand will look to improve their line speed to put both players under pressure.
Murray’s kicking game has being an invaluable asset in this tour and more of the same will be required this weekend to create territorial gains. Sexton at ten will expect an onslaught from New Zealand’s first ball carriers and it will be interesting to see how the duo go in the opening exchanges.
The three quarters of Farrell and Davies were not tested fully defensively last week. The New Zealand red card was a pivotal moment in the contest as the All Blacks looked to keep the ball in tight and snip around the fringes like in the opening test match. I am expecting a more fluid New Zealand attacking style; dry conditions and increased quick ruck ball will mean that Smith / Barrett will launch their outside backs with speed and pace.
I don’t care how a good a three quarter partnership you are. When you are faced with quick ruck ball defensively to deal with, game time decisions are required. New Zealand line running options will increase compare to last weekend and it is going to create overlap scenarios for the hosts.
The back three have massive potential with their skill set and pace but whether they get the opportunity to highlight those strengths remains a doubt. A selection based on continuity; you can partially understand the logic but I think pack reinforcements particularly in the front row was required. Time will tell on the selection decisions made.
New Zealand pick form players
This is a formidable New Zealand team who will have a dog about them this week. Rumors of training ground bust ups indicates that the intensity levels have increased significantly this week. Kieran Read wins his 100th cap; a superb accomplishment and his team mates will look to celebrate the milestone with a complete performance.
The pack will fancy their chances of asserting dominance in the set piece. The scrum, a set piece where British & Irish Lions potentially thought before the tour was a key attacking weapon has being far from that. NZ have had the edge in those exchanges and the line-out will be probed by the hosts given the limited number of Lions lineout jumper options.
The back row will be issued with simple instructions: clear rucks and present quick ruck ball to Smith and Barrett. Cane and Kaino will look to set the tone in breakdown work. Kaino’s work rate and clear-out work will be superb given the likes of O’Brien in direct opposition. Reid will ball carry. Reid will offload. Reid will tackle and tackle; set the tone for the rest of the team. Emotional energy is with New Zealand.
The half-back partnership was never in doubt. Smith will relish the dry conditions forecast and he will be asked to distribute quickly to Barrett. Lienert Brown at thirteen will look to test out Farrell and Davies defensively in order to create openings for the likes of Savea and Jordie Barrett who is playing sublime rugby this season. Accomplished kicking game, line running intelligence and ability to create openings for others.
Hansen’s selections are picked on form and he will demand that the players repay the faith that is placed upon them with an emphatic performance. The manner of last weekend’s result will irk New Zealand; the side are fully focused to write the wrongs and I expect them to account for the Lions with something to spare (ten points). Hope I am proved wrong but I think tired Lions bodies could be crucial this weekend.