Lions 2017: Does Warren Gatland stick or twist for the Series decider?
Warren Gatland wielded the changes after the First Test but after emerging victorious in Wellington, is it time to stick to a winning formula?
We’re five weeks into the Lions tour and Warren Gatland has endured enough vitriol to make lesser men weep but when it has come to selection, he has resolved to make bold calls, whatever the public backlash (okay, let’s not mention the Geography Six…), so when his First Test selection was found wanting, he dropped his most powerful strike runner in Ben Te’o and opted for the tantalizing Sexton-Farrell axis. He also gave an off-colour Alun Wyn Jones a chance to redeem himself in the face of public criticism and parachuted Sam Warburton in for his breakdown expertise, but as selection-time for the biggest Test game since the 2015 World approaches, there still areas up for debate.
The major debating point at Wednesday’s selection meeting will come at loosehead, where Mako Vunipola, uncharacteristically, seemed to lose his cool as he gave away four penalties and was eventually yellow carded for a crude off-the-ball clear out on Beauden Barrett.
Does Warren Gatland punish him, with discipline one of his major bugbears from the tour, or sit him down, see where he’s at mentally and give him a chance to redeem himself? Many commentators would point to Jack McGrath being a better scrummager and a safer option but Vunipola’s dynamism is intoxicating to his coaches and he may escape the axe.
Verdict Vunipola to stay
The selection poser will be who plays alongside Maro Itoje, who enjoyed a breakthrough game against the All Blacks in Wellington, with his power, effervescence around the field and fierce will-to-win. Despite giving away penalties, the Saracen, is now vying to be the most dynamic lock in world rugby with Brodie Retallick.
His likely partner will be Alun Wyn Jones who set the tone for the Test with a dominating offensive hit on Owen Franks. He acted as a minder for Itoje in the rucks and geed him up throughout the game for an hour. Courtney Lawes did exceptionally well in his 20-minute cameo, smashing into All Blacks defenders, tackling effectively and doing his job at the set-piece but the smart money is him being used off the bench for warhorse Jones after the hour.
Verdict: Alun Wyn Jones to start
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With the backrow and half-backs looking bedded in, barring any last-minute scares, Gatland has to decide whether he sticks with the blossoming distribution offered by Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, or revert to his first Test inside-centre, Ben Te’o, who would expect to put pressure on an rarely tried 10-12 axis between Beauden Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown.
With Sonny Bill banned and Ryan Crotty almost certainly ruled out, the Lions management may want another look at the Sexton-Farrell partnership that started to tick over in the absence of SBW on Saturday. With a dryer-track expected in Auckland compared to the monsoon of Wellington, the Lions may trust the duo in possession of the shirt to stretch the All Blacks backline, as they did when Taulupe Faletau crashed over after a slick right-to-left move. There are no debates over Jonathan Davies who has enjoyed a vintage tour.
Verdict: Sexton and Farrell to ride again
The two players pushing for involvement are Leigh Halfpenny for his redoubtable right-boot, with Owen Farrell missing some key kicks in pressure situations and the versatile and industrious Jack Nowell who has grown into the tour, impressing Warren Gatland with his workrate and desire to come in off the wing, or hit the line from full-back. With
Anthony Watson showing no ill-effects from his unscheduled meeting with Sonny Bill’s over-developed shoulder, and Elliot Daly largely in credit, despite being burned by Reiko Ioane in the First Test, Gatland has, once again, to decide whether to back the attacking, unpredictable talents of Liam Williams as the last line of defence. The tough-as-teak Scarlets back, showed decent hands in release Taulupe Faletau, and took a difficult ball from over his shoulder in Wellington and it would be a very harsh call to drop him.
Verdict The Watson-Williams-Daly triumvirate to go again
Test 23 for Third Test
- Mako Vunipola
- Jamie George
- Tadhg Furlong
- Maro Itoje
- Alun Wyn Jones
- Sam Warburton
- Sean O’Brien
- Taulupe Faletau
- Conor Murray
- Johnny Sexton
- Elliot Daly
- Owen Farrell
- Jonathan Davies
- Anthony Watson
- Liam Williams
16. Kyle Sinckler, 17 Ken Owens, 18. Jack McGrath, 19. Courtney Lawes, 20. CJ Stander, 21. Rhys Webb, 22. Ben Te’o, 23. Jack Nowell