Lions 2017: Warren Gatland gambles for must-win Second Test
The Lions have never won at the Westpac and with the All Blacks unbeaten at home since 2009, the odds are stacked against Warren Gatland's men...
The thwack was perceptible through the cold Wellington air. In amongst a throng of All Blacks on the Westpac turf, Beauden Barrett was drilling the ball 40m across field into the waiting arms of Waisake Naholo. For anyone of a Lions persuasion watching on, it was a foreboding sight.
A dozen or so balls were launched across the grey skies with the same pinpoint accuracy while the opening training session took place in front of wide-eyed young kids and their parents.
Elsewhere Israel Dagg, installed at full-back, was also drilling clearance kicks 50m, while Sonny Bill Williams, always a major draw was strutting round like, well, Sonny Bill Williams. As the session came to a natural end, Sam Cane wandered over to sign autographs.
In short, with just over 24hrs to showtime, if the All Blacks were feeling paranoid, or under pressure, they were hiding it pretty damn well.
It summed up the gargantuan task ahead of the Lions. They’ve yet to taste success at the Westpac, and with 40 Test wins in 109 games, few in Wellington are backing them to make it 41.
Kieran Read, put in one of the great Test performances at No 8, after a ‘seven week holiday’ recuperating from a broken thumb, this according to the smiling Steve Hansen, and the All Blacks captain was all smiles at the pre-match press conference: “”If anything it’s going to be even more physical than last week and we can’t wait. We won’t change how we’re going to play, but we will look to subtly operate things. We’ve got a gameplan that we think is right for what the Lions will play, but if it changes on the field we’ll adapt on the run.”
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It’s all so different in the Lions camp, where Warren Gatland knows reputations are on the block. Gatland has endured a roller-coaster that would make most men queasy, after a tour in which he has come under extreme, and at times, unfair scrutiny but he hasn’t shied away from making the big selection calls.
After questioning the players after they were physically dominated by the All Blacks pack, the promotion of the dynamic Maro Itoje was expected, with loyalty giving an off-colour Alun Wyn Jones a reprieve, while in the backrow, Peter O’Mahony has been jettisoned after a failing to impose himself at the breakdown. Tour skipper, Sam Warburton, Warren Gatland’s trusted long-time lieutenant, has been tasked with slowing the ball down and adding the raw aggression in and around the fringes.
The most intriguing change comes in the 10-12 axis, where Johnny Sexton retains the fly-half jersey, with Owen Farrell taking the inside-centre role he has filled with such distinction for England. Both players are very vocal and Sexton and Farrell enjoyed an increasingly fruitful 74-minute partnership against the Crusaders, where both men started to dovetail intricately in the heavy midfield traffic. Even so, the change represents the biggest risk of the Series to date.
You can expect Sexton to be tasked with putting pressure on the All Blacks defence though his lofted kicks around the 22m line and subtle passing game to put the big ball carriers into gaps and give Lions precious front-foot ball. With wind and rain expected, the added kicking game of Owen Farrell and the left-footed Jonathan Davies will give the Lions options. With both playmakers offering sharp distribution, they will be expected to bring the likes of Liam Williams and Anthony Watson into play. On the flipside, Sonny Bill Williams will be licking his lips at barrelling down on the 10-12 channel, looking to offload out of contact.
Arguably the unluckiest player in the Lions 23 is Ben Te’o, who has been one of the standout players, topping the charts for clean breaks, offloads and defenders beaten and he is one of the few players on the planet who relishes the physical contest with SBW.
Another notable promotion is that of CJ Stander, who has been preferred to O’Mahony after an outstanding season for Munster and Ireland. An 80-minute physical onslaught is widely expected.
The All Blacks haven’t lost on home soil since 2009, against South Africa, so the odds are stacked against the Lions. To win, every player in the 23 will have to execute the game of their lives.
A win is improbable but not impossible. The Lions have reached their judgement day.