HALSEY TOWN, NY – D-Day is upon the 2017 British and Irish Lions; after a 30-15 loss in last week’s first test against the All Blacks in Auckland, this Saturday’s second test will decide how history will remember this tour. Any Lions tour is defined by the test series result, and this year’s tourists must now do what no Lions team has ever done; beat the All Blacks in two consecutive matches.
The Lions were comprehensively out-muscled in the forwards last week, losing the battle of the gainline, failing to slow down the All Blacks at the ruck and coming under pressure in the scrum; if the Lions are to have any hope of saving this test series, the balance must first tip up front. To that end head coach Warren Gatland has promoted tour captain Sam Warburton and young lock Maro Itoje from the bench into the starting lineup, and added the firepower of CJ Stander and Courtney Lawes to the replacements. Warburton will be tasked with disrupting the All Blacks at the breakdown; last week New Zealand scrum half Aaron Smith had a very easy ride as his forward pack consistently presented him clean, quick ball with which to launch his strike runners. Warburton is a master of the breakdown and must find a way to slow down the All Blacks’ possession to allow the Lions’ defensive line to get set. A result of all the front foot possession enjoyed by the All Blacks last week was the frequency with which they got over the gainline and managed to offload to support runners, sending the Lions’ defence careering backwards and disrupting the line speed which had previously been so impressive on this tour. Gatland will be hoping Itoje’s physicality will contribute to remedying this, and his presence in the lineout will be an added benefit. Neither of the Lions’ locks had good games last week, however George Kruis is unfortunate to be dropped from the test squad rather than Alun Wyn Jones who has arguably been the weakest performing lock on this tour. Stander and Lawes on the bench add real explosiveness to a set of forward replacements which had limited impact last week; their contribution will be key if the Lions are to win the battle up front.
In the backline, Irishman Jonathan Sexton replaces Ben Te’eo, with Owen Farrell moving to 12. This decision raised some eyebrows as Te’eo was one of the Lions’ best performers last week, leading the team with nine carries and contributing solidly in defence. However, the Lions looked most dangerous when the ball was in the hands of outside centre Jonathan Davies and the back three of Watson, Williams and Daly, as evidenced by the incredible length of the field try scored by the Lions in the first half. Te’eo is much more of a strike running 12 than a distributor, so supply to these outside backs was limited last weekend; one can only assume that Gatland wants an additional distributor in midfield to move the ball wide more quickly. If the weather forecast proves to be accurate and Wellington sees heavy rain on Saturday, having Sexton’s powerful and accurate boot to complement those of Farrell and scrum half Connor Murray will assist the Lions in controlling territory.
A potential downside to Te’eo’s relegation to the bench will be the loss of defensive physicality in the midfield. All Black’s centre Sonny Bill Williams will no doubt relish the prospect of running at the smaller Farrell, and while the Lions will bring Te’eo on in the second half to inject power into the backline, the All Blacks’ midfield replacement Ngani Laumape is equally powerful; the battle between those two replacements could be one of the most interesting aspects of this test. The All Blacks also start winger Waisake Naholo in place of the injured Ben Smith; Naholo was very impressive in attack in the Lions’ game against the Highlanders earlier in this tour, however the Lions may look to exploit his relative international inexperience by testing his defensive positioning and ability under the high ball.
Last weekend the Lions spurned too many excellent attacking opportunities close to the All Black’s line. They cannot repeat this mistake if they are to level the series on Saturday; in order to beat the best team in the world they must be ruthless in attack, uncompromising in defence and rule the set piece. They will need to be at their absolute best for 80 minutes if they are to prevail. The All Blacks are playing for the once-in-a-generation chance to beat a Lions team and they smell blood in the water following the first test. It has all the makings of a classic encounter, here’s hoping it lives up to the billing.
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