Kick off – 8:35am (Irish time), Saturday 1st July.
After last week’s heartache, you don’t need to go to TMO to see how clear and obvious the All Blacks’ intent is in terms of winning this series. However, do we need to check to see if there is any reason why the Lions can’t go on and win the second test? Well, lets look at the angles and see!
First off, lets take a look at the 23 Lions selected for our do-or-die clash:
There are some very noticeable and eye brow raising calls in there (some more than others depending on your stance). Some of them are justified calls and others need a little more analysis. I’m only going to mention the interesting calls, sure you know well why the others are in there!!
Lets start with Maro Itoje. This guy in my opinion is the epitome of a Lion. His power in the pack, offloading skill, awareness of space, work rate around the ruck and overall presence on the pitch has been outstanding, and this Lion has consistently delivered every time he’s been called up to join the pride on the field of battle.
He was on the bench last week and to paraphrase a quote from a famous 80’s movie, “no-one puts baby (or Itoje in this case) in the corner.” When you have a player with the skill and competency that this guy has, you start him, end of story! Gatland has started him for this week and this is an excellent choice in my opinion.
One of the greatest issues I’ve noticed throughout this tour is the lack of consistency at leadership level. Certain players you would expect to step up to the mark have failed on numerous occasions. And then there’s the captaincy, or more accurately, captaincies!
Gatland chose Sam Warburton as captain at the beginning of this tour, however he has not been used as Captain on many occasions. Instead, we have witnessed a merry-go-round of different captains for each match. There’s no sense to this as it hasn’t made any of them truly shine and it’s most likely caused confusion among the squad regarding who they should turn to at the highest level. You don’t see the 6Nations teams do this and you most certainly don’t see New Zealand do it, so why the Lions? Warburton is a leader and was brought on this tour to do a job, and that’s what he’s been selected to do this Saturday, to lead! In my opinion, he should have captained all games on this tour, or at least the last 3. This would have given him the time to get to grips with the team structures, motivate his side, and galvanise his rank throughout the squad. Although I believe his selection as captain for this weekend is the correct choice, I fear that he may need another test to truly shine as a result of the previous chopping and changing.
Sexton at 10 is another correct choice from Gatland and like Warburton, he was brought on the tour to be a leader at 10 and guide our Lions to the try line. Sexton is the most experienced and skillful 10 that the Lions have on this tour, he should be treated as such and start each game that he is picked for. Farrell of course has been outstanding overall in this tour but I truly believe his skills are better served at 12. He was outclassed by Barrett last weekend and I think Sexton is the man to negate that this week. Farrell and Sexton have been a great partnership to watch and I think this combination is what’s needed to unlock the All Blacks defence. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Murray is more than familiar with Sexton at 10 and this should add some much needed consistency and fluidity to the quick-ball delivery and distribution system that they are used to when playing for Ireland. Of course, Ben Te’o loses out to the bench as a result of the Farrell selection at 12 but overall this is the best option. When Lions get tired and they need a big, fast and solid ball carrier to spring from the bench, look no further than this guy!
Finally Courtney Lawes and CJ Stander are incredible players and really bolster our bench. Stander has been targeted and well marked by teams throughout this tour which is a true testament of how much of a threat he is. He hasn’t been able to show his full ability as a result but he’s certainly shown on many occasions his workhorse attitude and never say die mentality. Like Te’o, Stander and Lawes will surely add energy and inject power into our game. Neither player has put a foot wrong and have slowly inched closer to starting a test. They are probably the most worthy of the call ups in terms of the very hard graft they’ve put in throughout previous games.
Mentality. A successful tour is not always awarded to which team was the most physically strong and who had the most accuracy with kicks, passes, throws. That is all very important of course, but none of these attributes are achieved to a highest standard unless you have the right mindset going into each match. The All Blacks win a lot of test matches because of the mindset they deploy to their game. None of them believe that they can win, they ALL believe that they WILL win. This in turn shows in how they perform. The Lions need to have a similar mindset if they stand a chance against the All Blacks. Liam Williams had this mindset last weekend, you could see the passion exude from him whenever he had the ball. And when he ran from deep inside our 22 towards the All Blacks try line, I think we could all see the hunger he had and that relentless desire to overturn them. This was a huge lift for the team, especially when it resulted in Sean O’Brien slamming the ball over the whitewash. The Lions need a lot more of this on Saturday, there should be no cap on hunger and passion. Each player from 1-23 needs to deliver and show what they are all truly capable of.
This upcoming second test is essentially the last chance to hope for a Lions tour victory. Lose on Saturday, and it’s another Lions tour scalp for the All Blacks. Win the game and they will set up a massive tour decider next week.
Where the game will be won
You hear a lot of rugby journalists talk about how the Lions shouldn’t try to beat the All Blacks at their own game. Their own game being quick ball, fast running defence, and overwhelming counter attacking rugby. Well why not? I think this is exactly what the Lions need to do. Look at how England (2011) and Ireland (2016) beat the All Blacks? They provided quick ball from the ruck, ran fast and hard at the All Blacks attacking line (no drift defence deployed), they got up in their faces and relentlessly attacked them for 80 minutes. Now, who normally plays like that??
The Lions need to throw caution to the wind and throw everything they have left at the All Blacks if they want to win this game. Don’t be under any illusion, the All Blacks will do the same.
I think both teams will be feeling nervous on Saturday, they both know what’s at stake if they win/lose the match. As a result, either side could get rattled if some early exchanges don’t go their way. I felt last week that if the Lions had gotten over the try line after 2 minutes, that would have put a spring in their step and rattled the All Blacks. Unfortunately, following a TMO review, the Lions were just an inch in touch on that occasion!
This is not a Lions task this weekend, it’s a Mammoth one! The Lions are capable of winning this game but it’s hard to look past the All Blacks who look to be back to their best again.
I think this game will be closer than the first test and will restore some pride in the Lions supporters and indeed in Gatland. I expect the Lions to lead at half time but to fall to another All Blacks master class in the second half.
All Blacks 28, Lions 20.