by Craig Wright
If winning a series in New Zealand was an uphill struggle before the British and Irish Lions touched down in the land of the long white cloud, the mountain now ahead of them would now surely be more at home on the route of the Tour de France.
Last week’s first test defeat was a perfect reminder as to the quality of this New Zealand team – as if such a reminder was required. The 30-15 scoreline was, in the end, slightly flattering to the tourists, who found themselves coming off second-best in almost every area of the game. Whilst Sean O’Brien’s try for the Lions was arguably the moment of the match, and indeed the tour, the All Blacks put together a clinical performance befitting of the best side in world rugby and perhaps negating the visitors’ best chance of claiming victory in the series.
Warren Gatland’s team selection for the second Test this weekend has therefore almost unanimously been billed as ‘the last roll of the dice’ by the watching media. Tour captain Sam Warburton returns to the starting lineup, with Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton starting together for the first time this tour. Steve Hansen, meanwhile, has kept it straightforward – out go the injured Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith, in come Anton Lienert-Brown and Waisake Naholo. With winning comes the luxury of simple selection…
Warburton’s re-introduction to the side is perhaps no surprise given the Lions’ struggle to slow down New Zealand possession at the breakdown last weekend. Whilst Peter O’Mahony can count himself desperately unlucky to miss out having barely put a foot wrong in Auckland, the inclusion of a traditional openside flanker in the mould of Warburton should go some way to remedy that particular problem. Maro Itoje also finds himself parachuted into the starting lineup, yet it is his partner in the second-row that has caused some consternation amongst Lions supporters. Alun Wyn Jones retains his spot despite a below-par showing last weekend, despite the hugely impressive performances of Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes in midweek.
By contrast, there were simply no below-par performances from New Zealand’s forwards last weekend, led by a simply totemic return to action by Kieran Read. The number eight was the best player on the Eden Park pitch last Saturday, belying his recent injury troubles. However, if Read was the man-of-the-match, then Brodie Retallick could not have been far behind. The second-row seemed to cover every blade of grass, and probably some of them twice, in a typically industrious performance. Each member of the All Blacks pack does the basics so well, it’s almost hard to see where the Lions can gain an edge.
Nowhere is Gatland’s gambling more apparent than in his backline. Whilst the pairing of Sexton and Farrell should result in better distribution and a savvier tactical kicking game, the trade-off is a weakening of the defensive structure. Ben Te’o was perhaps the Lions’ standout performer last weekend, with his duel with Sonny Bill Williams ending in a split decision to coin a boxing analogy. With Te’o relegated to the bench, will Williams land the knockout blow early on? Outside the centres, the back three is unchanged despite the try-scoring feats of Tommy Seymour against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.
In any other team, the loss of a player of Ben Smith’s calibre would be a devastating blow. Not so with New Zealand. In comes Waisake Naholo, try-scorer against the Lions for the Highlanders earlier in the tour, with Israel Dagg shifting across to full-back. Anton Lienert-Brown is promoted from the bench to take the place of Ryan Crotty, creating space for Super Rugby’s top try-scorer Ngani Laumape amongst the replacements. Throw in the supreme Beauden Barrett at fly-half on his home ground, and the All Blacks are primed and ready.
Much will depend on the opening ten minutes – if the Lions can gain a foothold early on, they have a chance. However, if Barrett, Sonny Bill et al sniff the slightest of opportunities, you can guarantee they will take them on almost every occasion. With the Wellington crowd at fever pitch inside the old ‘Cake Tin’ of the Westpac Stadium, the All Blacks should have more than enough to claim both the win and the series.