In the early hours of the morning in Great Britain & Ireland, Warren Gatland and Lions management announced their side who they hope will level the test series. A team selection with plenty of talking points but Hawkeye Sidekick wonders if the changes will matter at all.
The Fall Guys
Warren Gatland’s fall guys were Peter O’Mahony and George Kruis who are omitted out of the twenty-three man squad and Lions center Ben Teo who has to make do with a place on the bench. Gatland was at pains to praise all these players during the team selection press conference but some of the moves do not make sense.
As mentioned in blog earlier in the week, the understanding and relationship between the Saracens players in the pack would be vital. George at hooker executing the lineout to club colleagues Itoje and Kruis would have provided stability in the set piece. With Alun Wyn Jones in the mix, it means that there is instability in the line out and the lack of a third jumper in the pack is galling.
Warburton comes into the back row to resume the captaincy. His cameo last weekend hardly set the world alight when replacing O’Mahony and the breakdown battle deteriorated for the Lions in the final quarter. The lack of back row lineout jumpers is a clear advantage to New Zealand who will look to systematically target and exploit the lack of options in the Lions set piece. Does Faletau and Warburton become lineout options in a week? I don’t think so.
Jones in the second row must consider himself incredibly lucky to hold down a test match starting berth. Ineffective in the open exchanges, unforced errors with ball in hand – rather mixed bag truth be told. Kruis has taken the hit for the ineffective second row display last weekend. Itoje is an obvious addition with his pace, power and physicality in the loose so Jones needs to complement the Saracens powerhouse accordingly; have my doubts this will happen which then questions why Gatland was not brave enough to name either Lawes or Henderson in the starting lineup.
Lawes would complement Itoje in work rate and tempo in the pack. Henderson’s ball carrying comes into the mix. The Ulster lock had an excellent outing midweek but perhaps his yellow card spelled the end of his selection hopes this weekend. Jones was average last weekend and a repeat performance will see derision from the press corp.
The front row is the same as last weekend. No genuine arguments, thought fresh legs would be an option but continuity is the theme here. George at hooker will be tested in both scrum and line-out which had good and bad moments. Furlong and Vunipola will look to assist the Saracens hooker but the unit had lapses in concentration at scrum-time which led to penalty concessions.
A pack whose back row mobility is questionable, a second row partnership untested on this tour so far and a front row where fatigue may play hugely in this test. It is a gamble from Lions management.
The half-back partnership is intriguing with the introduction of Sexton at ten to allow Farrell to move to twelve. Sexton is a fabulous footballer but I really do fear for the Leinster player this weekend; the pounding that he will receive defensively from the first New Zealand ball carrier will be tough to watch. Sexton will need the support of Faletau but the Welsh international was anonymous in the second half, protection of Murray at ruck time non-existent. Best of luck to Sexton, he is going to need it.
The center partnership on paper looks like two ball players to create attacking space for an exciting back three but defensively they look vulnerable. Teo’s crash ball carrying was one thing but he was defensively on point last weekend. Davies will need to step up defensively this weekend in Teo’s absence; a couple of missed first time tackles last weekend were noted due to the speed of New Zealand on the outside. A repeat and line breaks and tries will follow.
Farrell’s fitness remains a question mark. His game management at twelve and ability to create mismatches will be key. Can Farrell identify when Naholo, Ioane push up and place kicks in behind to test them defensively? Defensively, Farrell will be put to the pin of his collar and despite his best efforts, line breaks are going to happen on Saturday.
The back three continue. Williams will look to build on a good performance with ball in and and try to improve defensively in his aerial ball taking duties. Daly and Watson will need to vigilant throughout defensively and look to execute better than last weekend when opportunities arose. Clinical execution required from the back three but again it is more hope than expectation.
The sub bench contains ball carrying ability in abundance with Teo, Nowell and Stander in the mix but the fear is that New Zealand may have already imposed their will on the game before their arrival. A team selection with plenty of gambles contained. Whether the chips check out for Gatland is another story?
New Zealand focused on performance more than opponent
It has being a strange week for New Zealand leading up to this test match. Gatland’s barbed comments on Kaino’s late hit on Murray earlier in the week prompted Steve Hansen to go on the national airwaves to defend his player and team.
The mantra this week has being two words: focus and performance. New Zealand management and team have being quiet from Tuesday onwards; ominous signs for the Lions and you would expect adjustments to be made to improve their performance which was good but worryingly could have being better according to Steve Hansen and players post-game last weekend.
Two forced changes for the All Blacks as Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty are injured. No weak link in the replacements; Naholo and Lienert Brown are physically imposing players who will challenge the Lions fringe defense.
Naholo is such an exciting talent; his cameo against the Lions on tour has being duly noted. Lienert Brown at thirteen could potentially have a defining game in the NZ jersey as he will look to expose the lack of three quarter continuity of the Lions. His pace, power and offloading game is on point. The signs are not good for the Lions.
Ben Smith’s absence means that Israel Dagg shifts to the fifteen jersey. Dagg will be solid under the high aerial bombs which will no doubt be launched into his direction early doors but his line running from deep will pose more problems for the Lions outside defense particularly if Barrett / Smith get quick ruck ball.
The pack is as you were. Cody Taylor (an apparent weak link from this blog lol) excelled with a display full of pace, power, tempo and work rate. The NZ front five stuffed the Lions upfront in the set piece and their defensive maul (bordering illegal) nullified any Lions attacking threat from the pack. The scrum yielded a couple of penalties which Barrett slotted over.
The back row were ferocious throughout last weekend. Kieran Read belied a player who was out of action for any considerable time with a barnstorming performance. Eighteen carries, some superb offloads in contact exposed Lions in both departments. He was ably assisted by Cane whose mobility and intelligence to commit to the breakdown is sublime. Kaino’s toughness and physicality to proceedings set the tone for the rest of the pack to follow. Similar performances will be expected and enhanced this weekend.
A defining weekend for the British & Irish Lions. A weekend which will expose team selections in key positions. New Zealand look ominously placed to improve their performance last weekend and I sense that the B&I Lions have had their chance to upset the odds. This could be a slog for Warren Gatland’s side and players such as Jones, Warburton and Sexton could be isolated and exposed for maximum reward. New Zealand to win this fixture going ahead. 20+ point win if a dry track is forecast.