The team is in, so here are some quick thoughts on some of the more contentious issues.
On Ben Te’o being dropped to the bench.
— TomGeorge (@Tomge) June 29, 2017
Big Ben’s contributions in the first test were rightly praised. His defensive stewarding of Sonny Bill Williams being the main positive and this for many is why he should keep his place. However, for all the GOOD there was some SHIT and the stat to pay most attention to is this: he carried 9 times for a paltry 14 metres and passed the ball twice only. A player can get away with being a big boom carrier and not passing much if you are rampaging all over the gainline but Te’o wasn’t doing this at all and inside centre is too important a position in the attack to simply select someone as a preventer of their opposite number. The phased back play from the Lions last week was wanting and must improve and Owen Farrell is a Grandslam and twice six nations winning international 12 with a passing and kicking game. He’s no slouch in defence, either.
Jonathan Davies was one of the Lions better players in the first test, and the Lions must get the ball to him more through better phased play if they are to have any chance of achieving the three tries that puts them in with a shout of winning. The Sexton-Farrell axis, with its ability and willingnes to be more intricate and creative at least gives us a shot. Will it work? Perhaps not in terms of result, but repeating the back play and patterns of first defeat is not an option if we fancy any different result.
The decision to drop Ben Te’o is suprising but not ridiculous, nor without some merit. Also, he has changed the odd game or two when introduced from the bench for England.
On the Second Row
While Itoje coming in was expected, pairing him with AWJ and disposing of Kruis from the entire match squad is more baffling on the face of it. The lack of physicality and ability to slow up New Zealand ball up front in and around ruck and tackle were the most crippling factors last week. For the Lions this led to low possession and territory alloyed with high penalties conceded to create the perfect storm of inability to impose themselves on the game in any way. Itoje is in to counteract this with his special brand of busy, physical shithousery and AWJ stays in for experience and his handling game. Itoje will apparently call the lineout but, as an aside, when did calling the lineout become such a thing? People hardly used to mention it and now it’s something talked about akin to decoding the Enigma machine.
Kruis didn’t have a terrible game, but if he’s not starting it’s not difficult to see why he isn’t on the bench. During the last teat people were commenting even as the game was ongoing that Lawes may be needed to counteract the dog of the the All Black locks. He’s in to provide this from the bench.
On the back row
What a week Peter O’Mahoney has had, from captain of the British & Irish Lions to one of the blokes sat in a suit in the stands within five days; a fall from grace faster than shit through a goose. He should take some heart that his replacement is, in fairnes, the tour captain as well as being coach’s favourite child, Sam Warburton. The Lions will lose something in the lineout but there’s little point in a brilliant lineout if you lose by 15 points because you cannot control possession in the most important aspect of the game, the breakdown. Warburton brings plenty to that area as well a being a useful lineout operator himself and his presence will give Sean O’Brien greater latitude to focus on carrying.
Gatland has returned to his roots with some CJ Stander boom-boom off the bench.
Make no mistake, the Lions are still going to lose, but none of us want to lose in the manner we did last week; that is with no possession, little phased play to be happy about and an opposition engaging in death by a thousand steps around the ruck. These changes go some way to trying to address this. The selections may not delight everyone, but it should be credited that there is some sense and logic to it all. The most surprising thing it reveals is that, contrary to all our expectations, Warren Gatland had definitely not made his mind up on his best fifteen months ago.
British and Irish Lions: L Williams, A Watson, J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly, J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong, M Itoje, AW Jones, S Warburton (c), S O’Brien, T Faletau.
Replacements: K Owens, J McGrath, K Sinckler, C Lawes, CJ Stander, R Webb, B Te’o, J Nowell.