07242017

Gatland gamble full of ambition but comes at a cost – Guscott

Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton

Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton have played only 74 minutes together so far on the Lions tour

I didn’t see Warren Gatland’s second Test selection coming, and I don’t think many other observers did either.

New Zealand may have been expecting Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell to combine at fly-half and inside centre before the Lions’ tour got under way, but the fact the double-playmaker tactic has largely gone untested, added to centre Ben Te’o’s excellent form, means it will have come as a real curveball for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

The pairing of Te’o and Jonathan Davies was one of the successes in the tourists’ 30-15 first Test defeat at Eden Park.

In defeat, coaches don’t tend to tinker with the parts that actually did well. Usually they build a better team around them.

The introduction of Sexton, alongside Farrell, signals a complete switch in philosophy, rather than any implied criticism of Te’o’s performance.

It is a team that has been picked to look outwards rather than inwards. A selection that is full of ambition and adventure to attack the wide spaces.

But it comes at a cost…

Owen Farrell and Sonny Bill Williams<!–

Williams will line up opposite Farrell (10) rather than the more imposing Ben Te’o

Backline imbalance

Without the heft of Te’o, there is no-one in the backline renowned for the ferocity of their defence.

Off first-phase ball, with thunderous All Blacks runners like centre Sonny Bill Williams and wing Waisake Naholo opposite, that is a problem.

I expect Williams will target that 10-12 channel just as he did in the final quarter of the first Test, when Sexton and Farrell were in harness.

Farrell – directly opposite Williams – is giving up three stone in weight to the All Blacks centre and New Zealand will make gains there. It is unavoidable given the disparity.

But it is not just in defence that the Lions have got a new problem.

In attack, they are going to have to work smarter.

There is just no way they can resort to route one rugby because, without Te’o, there is not the beef to crash up in midfield and create a simple platform to work from.

And none of the back three are wings of the stature of George North or Naholo, who can come in off the blind wing and provide that physical option off Sexton.

Rather than a battering-ram approach, the Lions will hope to cut cute, incisive angles to unpick the All Blacks defence, with the help of the smoke and mirrors provided by dummy runners.

Ben Te'o<!–

Te’o carried nine times on Saturday, a total no Lions player exceeded

The brave new world

It is a harder trick to pull off, but from the few examples we have seen of Farrell and Sexton playing together, especially in the win over the Crusaders, they have the individual talent to do it.

Obviously it is a concern that they have played only 74 minutes in total alongside each other on this tour, but that is a reality of Lions tours.

Most combinations across the team will have got no more than three matches to bed in before being tried out in Test rugby.

They will have to find the answers on their feet.

The back three of Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Liam Williams were dangerous last week, and it makes sense to have two playmakers who can distribute the ball to them quickly and intelligently to maximise that threat.

If the swirling wind and rain descends on Wellington as forecast, they also have the kicking game to put the pressure on the New Zealand back three.

As well as Sexton and Farrell’s cultured boots, Davies kicks well in the wide channels and Daly has the ability to turn wingers with a powerful punt.

The All Blacks have been forced into a change at full-back with Ben Smith out with concussion. Naholo starts on the wing as Israel Dagg drops back to 15.

Naholo’s ability under the high ball might be an area for the Lions to explore, but they will kick to him with caution.

As we saw when he crashed through for the Highlanders against the Lions, he is a force of nature, a wrecking ball of a winger.

The selection is a gamble.

Gatland knows he is losing something in one department in the hope of gaining something different, and hopefully decisive, in another.

Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly<!–

Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly are England as well as Lions team-mates

Forwards to take responsibility

The whole strategy depends on the Lions forwards securing ball in better quality and higher quantity than they did in the first Test.

That is essential to get this very attacking backline to click in areas where they can score tries.

The All Blacks enjoyed 63% of territory in the first Test, with the Lions pack not hitting hard enough and close enough to the gainline to balance up that stat.

Ireland won against New Zealand in November by tearing into the All Blacks from the first to the last, denying them any momentum.

The Lions need to stop the one-out runners dead. The All Blacks are happy to play rugby the unglamorous way around the fringes, but they were squeezing yards, not just inches, last weekend.

The hosts also had 61% of possession.

Wales’ Sam Warburton comes in for Peter O’Mahony on the flank and adds a bit more physicality in the breakdown, but he cannot be expected to be competing for the ball at every contest.

He will pick and choose his moments to jackal over the ball and will need support.

Alun Wyn Jones, Mako Vunipola and George Kruis all got pushed off the ball in the first Test and you have to offer more of a fight to at least slow the ball down, even if you don’t get the turnover.

The forwards will also have to maintain the standards set in the line-out last week.

The Lions won 13 out of 14 line-outs on their own throw at Eden Park, and nicked three when the All Blacks threw in.

Kruis, who called that set-piece last week, has been left out of the matchday 23 so that will be a big role for Maro Itoje and Jones to fill.

The bench has a better look to it than last week with Te’o, Courtney Lawes, Jack Nowell and Rhys Webb all having the ability to come on and up the tempo in the crucial final quarter.

It is perhaps not the specifics of the selection that will make Lions fans optimistic, though.

Instead, it will be the memory of last weekend and the fact New Zealand’s first two tries came from moments of lax concentration and their third was an individual error and fortunate bounce into Rieko Ioane’s arms.

There were plenty of chances the Lions left out there and they could have scored another two or three tries.

Gatland’s team is a bold attempt to make sure those opportunities are created again and, this time, converted.

Unfortunately, as much as I want the Lions to win, I think the All Blacks will have too much and seal the series.

What Next?

Recent Articles

Leave a Reply

You must be Logged in to post comment.