I would never have put Warren Gatland down as a man who cared too much abut outside opinion, but it’s an easy conclusion to arrive at given some of his decisions in recent weeks.
The Wellington ‘Cake Tin’ is one of the world’s great grounds for running rugby. It possesses a fast surface and is the home pitch for Beauden Barrett which, depending on your allegiance tomorrow, increases the possibility of a thrilling or frightening masterclass.
Behind most opinions on the Lions second test XV appears to be optimism that Warren Gatland’s selection can level the series. Honestly, I don’t see that, but it is very interesting to look at the back division for the tourists and note the lack of size there. I see that as a very positive development for the future of the game.
Fair enough, Conor Murray is a rangy nine, but none of the rest of the backs are monsters. Is it the first time in his coaching career Gatland has gone without a big 12? There is a lot of skill on offer tomorrow which is exciting and very important because the way the game has gone in the past few years, it’s all smash-it-up players. Hopefully what we should see is an emphasis on brain power as opposed to brawn.
Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell have really good rugby nous, but they’ll still need the ball to contribute to the big picture. They’ve had six days to prep their stuff and ensure there are no communication breakdowns this time as there was in the final quarter in Auckland. They have been the two key drivers in training this week I’m sure, and if the Joe Schmidt model is replicated at the highest level, the walk-throughs should ensure everyone’s on the same page come kick-off time tomorrow.
For Sexton, starting this Test match is an opportunity he has craved his whole career. The key question now is: will he goal-kick or will Gatland keep the tee with Farrell? These are important decisions. As a player, in your mind, if the responsibility of being the goal-kicker is taken from you, it subtracts big time from your self-assurance.
Joe Schmidt has always had Johnny’s back from a confidence perspective, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve chatted this week. One of the obstacles for an out-half is the balance between your own game and the responsibility you owe to the team’s strategies. You worry about how other players are performing, partly, of course, because you look and feel better when the team is humming.
However, Farrell and Sexton cannot get distracted to the detriment of their own decision-making. They must accept too that in such an artificial environment, a Lions test team will not be as structured as an international team. That mightn’t sound like the end of the world until the moment you plan to go wide and the options are not there.
I would never have put Warren Gatland down as a man who cared too much abut outside opinion, but it’s an easy conclusion to arrive at given some of his decisions in recent weeks. The Sam Warburton selection for tomorrow is understandable. The reason the Welsh flanker was selected as tour captain was that Gatland wanted him in the test team. But on some other decisions, it appears there’s been a little bit of mental crumbling on the part of Gatland: he didn’t bring on the Geography Six subs against the ‘Canes because of the public backlash. He tried Ben Te’o last week, who had an excellent game, but he’s not backed him this time because the Sexton-Farrell combo is the one the cheap seats wanted, and perhaps Warren doesn’t need to be listening to that after the second test.
Also, it’s very unWarren-like not to go with a big inside centre in the mould of a Jamie Roberts but fair dues to him for going for it with Farrell and Sexton. People should never forget that Gatland is the Welsh coach, and it’s very normal for a national coach to trust the players he knows and has worked with. If he’d been working with CJ Stander for as long as he has Taulupe Faletau, maybe the Munster man would be starting tomorrow. There’s comfort for a coach in knowing you can trust a particular player.
I am really pleased CJ has made it into the squad tomorrow, even if he now looks a player gritting his teeth after an incredibly emotional and physical season. He needs a break but the type of guy he is, he will run on empty if he has to. He is more analysed than he has ever been, and that’s a compliment in itself, but he is not getting away from the clutches for those one or two 40m line-breaks at the moment.
I can only imagine how Iain Henderson is thinking after an emotionally draining week.
There looked like there were three of him on the pitch on Tuesday but he has to understand that to do what he did in the cleanout is a complete head-melter for the coaches, a massive ‘X’ against his name. I can guarantee you he would be in the squad tomorrow only for that. I’d go further and guess that the Henderson discussion did not even take place specifically for that reason. Fourteen points ahead, in complete control of a game, and then a moment of indiscipline. A complete mental opt-out. The public don’t understand how severely the game is refereed, all those actions are completely outlawed, and it’s an immediate yellow card, or occasionally worse. (I loved the way the New Zealand TMO was so alert and clever in the phraseology he used in recommending Roman Poite had a second look at the incident!).
From a Cork and Irish point of view, there is some angst over Peter O’Mahony not being in the 23, but I discussed the incredible timing that allowed him come from nowhere before the final game of the Six Nations to leading out the Lions last Saturday.
The more pertinent debate is the work Steve Borthwick must have done this week to get his reconstituted lineout working. From last week to this, the continuity is almost non-existent. George Kruis was calling it at Eden Park, O’Mahony was winning most of the ball, but it’s back to the drawing board on that again. It’s an area Borthwick excels in but it’s hardly ideal going up against the All Blacks in a second test.
The way the front row situation has worked out, I also feel Rory Best is unlucky not to be hooking tomorrow. His capacity in the ruck is fantastic, as is the ability to slow down and poach some ball. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start in tomorrow week’s third test, but it could be too late at that stage.
The importance of Sonny Bill Williams is worth restating as well, given the All Black losses of Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty since last Saturday. If they can keep Williams on the pitch, it’s incredibly difficult to see where the Lions can dominate to the extent they need to over 80 minutes. It’s already been said many times, but for Kieran Read to produce the individual performance he did at Eden Park is incredible. Some of the stuff he was doing was astonishing until you remind yourself this is New Zealand and they operate on a different tier to anything else in world rugby.
It’s not just the fact that their capacity to play out of the tackle puts them in a league of their own, it’s the amount of times those difficult offloads are executed — almost every time. That’s such a game-changer, such a difference in momentum for them against any and every opposition.
It’s also a different mindset, and I don’t have it. However, it’s something I want to be all over in Racing 92 pre-season by interrogating Dan Carter on it. Does it start at U6 level in New Zealand, is it only something that is ramped up when they come into the All-Black set-up? Either way, just wow