This tour is quickly spiralling into a mess. If a win doesn’t come on Saturday, the All Blacks will likely sweep the series and in failing to dispatch three of the five Super Rugby teams, the tour will go down as a massive failure. It was always going to be difficult touring in New Zealand but what’s disappointing has been the failure to execute and finish in games. There’s nothing worse than looking back at missed opportunity. That was last Saturday, and to an extent, the tour so far. Throw in the ‘Geography Six’, some questionable selection decisions, glaringly poor game management and the tour becomes farcical. Yet, a win gives us hope and a showdown the following week. The ever so slight possibility of success. So into Saturday, more in hope than expectation.
The All Blacks had a slight advantage in the scrum last week, nothing too debilitating for the Lions so I can understand why Gatland named the same front row. I do stand by my opinion that McGrath should start and have Mako come from the bench. Imagine springing Mako and Sinkler together in the 50th minute! The second row selection is a Paul Simon lyric, Maro Itoje has his photo opportunity while Alun Wyn Jones gets a shot at redemption.
Cane and Read Prevention Strategy II
The theory behind the inclusion of Warburton is sound. I buy it. The fact Warburton isn’t playing near the level he usually operates at is my worry. (Sidenote – Tipiruc made 24 tackles against the Hurricanes, missing none). Peter O’Mahoney becomes the scapegoat. When you consider it was 13-8 when he came off and the Lions had disrupted the All Black’s lineout and had made a decent start to the second half…its rough. The All Black back row can’t be nullified or stopped but they need to be handled, managed or disrupted, even just a little for the Lions to have a chance. O’Brien was sublime at times, Faletau needs to step up.
Sexton and Farrell
In recalling Sexton and selecting Farrell at inside centre, Gatland is going all in. All the chips are on the table. I’d like to see Sexton kicking. Johnny is the most mentally strong fly half out there, he wants the responsibility. It’s his ego that wants that responsibility, and I say give it to him. Farrell is better from the tee but was shaky last week, failing to convert O’Brien’s try and he had a poor game in general. I need my 10 to stand up and lead, Sexton will do this. Farrell now has a little less pressure on his shoulders and a small bit more space to operate.
The back three had the proverbial mixed bag last week, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The errors were costly but there was too much adventure and threat there to make changes this week. We want more of the same but can’t afford any mental lapses. The All Blacks claimed 14 points directly from those lapses. That’s the game. With Ben Smith out the task doesn’t get any easier. The revolving door of talent just means Naholo is the latest weapon in the arsenal to come out. Containing the Highlander and Reiko Ioane is paramount to the Lions success.
The bench picked is one that can add impact. Sinker, CJ, Webb and Nowell are all busy bees and are picked for the energy and tempo they each will add. Henderson is of course unlucky. I’m not too hopeful that Lawes can have the impact the Lions desire. I think the All Blacks chew Lawes up and spit him out like they did Wyn Jones and Kruis last week. Henderson just wouldn’t be as palatable, in my opinion.
Who needs to perform?
Alun Wyn Jones – Knock on the head, fair enough, but last week the Lions were schooled by the best second row pairing in the world. Henderson put in the best performance by a second row on tour so far on Tuesday and wasn’t considered. Wyn Jones has to put in a shift and he knows it.
Conor Murray – If you tell a Kiwi that Murray is the best scrum half in the world, he’ll laugh. Too many people were calling for Webb to start the second test for my liking. Lions want to play an expansive game with Farrell at 12 so Murray will have to up the tempo of his service. Yes his kicking is unrivalled, but thats not even in the top 5 things I want from my scrum half.
Toby Faletau – Toby in fairness had a massive day in defence but the Lions need him to carry more, get his hands on the ball. Kieran Read carried 19 times for 62 metres. The Lions number 8 managed only 9 for 12 metres. Hence CJ waiting in the wings.
Owen Farrell – Far too quiet the last day and Te’o is sacrificed. Farrell has the talent and ability to influence the outcome and has Sexton inside to lead the troops around. He needs to find space, for others and himself.
In a nutshell
The Lions need to be close to perfect to beat the All Blacks. They need to be clinical. If the Lions cut out the errors and can take their chances, it’s possible. It’s also entirely possible for the All Blacks to lift their game or entirely change their approach from a direct gameplan through their scrum half to a more expansive one that we’ve seen them play last year. They beat us the old fashioned way last week. They’ve yet to unleash their modern day masterpiece on the Lions. Will they even need to?