Lions go for broke with Sexton and Farrell
Warren Gatland makes 'tough calls' by dropping Te'o and Kruis for must-win second Test against All Blacks
Warren Gatland has gambled going into Saturday's decisive second Test against the All Blacks.
With the British and Irish Lions being comprehensively outplayed in last week's first Test in Auckland, losing 30-15 to an imperious New Zealand, Gatland has decided on a major shift in strategy for the clash at Wellington's Westpac Stadium.
Out goes Ben Te’o from the midfield and in comes Owen Farrell. Or rather the Englishman is shunted from fly-half to inside centre, allowing Irishman Jonathan Sexton to wear the No 10 jersey.
It's a huge call by Gatland, one of those decisions that see him hailed as a coaching genius or ridiculed as a coaching clown.
It's not the only controversial decision made by the Lions coach. Also axed is last week's captain, Irish flanker Peter O’Mahony, replaced by Sam Warburton, who was initially selected as the tour skipper. O'Mahony didn't play badly last week but the inclusion of Warburton indicates that the Lions want a better performance at the breakdown, an area in which they were dominated last week.
More controversial is the second-row partnership, with Gatland keeping faith in Alun Wyn Jones despite the Welshman so far being the poorest of all five locks on the tour. The 31-year-old looked way off the pace in the first Test but it's his partner, George Kruis, who is dropped to make way for England's Maro Itoje. It might have made more sense to pair Kruis with Itoje, team-mates for club (Saracens) and country, particularly as hooker Jamie George shares those connections.
But it's the decision to go with Sexton and Farrell that is the main talking point. The pair have barely played together on tour – 23 minutes at the end of the first Test and a 51-minute spell against the Crusaders – but Gatland wants to use their vision to give the Lions greater attacking options out wide. Te'o is a big man who runs and tackles hard but he hasn't the footballing skills of Farrell or Sexton and he squandered one try-scoring opportunity last week. The two fly-halves will be expected to pool their expertise to exert a better control on the game.
"You have to make the tough calls," said Gatland in response to a question about his selection. "We saw Maro's impact in the first Test and he will bring an edge and a physicality, as will Sam Warburton in terms of pressure on the ball." Asked to account for the Sexton-Farrell combination, Gatland replied: "Both have played well and it gives us that attacking option in the 10-12 channel. We created opportunities in the first Test and there were a few that we didn't finish."
New Zealand have also made changes to their team, although in their case they were enforced after injuries to full-back Ben Smith and centre Ryan Crotty. Israel Dagg moves from the wing to full-back, with Waisake Naholo filling the gap, while Anton Lienert-Brown replaces Crotty. "We are aware the British and Irish Lions have their backs to the wall and will chuck everything at us to keep themselves alive in the series," said Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach. "The job is far from done. It is going to require us to take our game to a higher level. It's going to be very demanding, physically and mentally, on both sides."
Courtney Lawes and Ian Henderson stake Test claims in Lions thriller
Lions coach Warren Gatland has displayed a rare sign of weakness by admitting that he didn't use all of his replacements in Tuesday's 31-31 draw against the Hurricanes because of media criticism.
Ten days ago Gatland called up six players – Scotland's Finn Russell and Allan Dell, and the Welsh quartet of Kristian Dacey, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill and Gareth Davies – as injury cover for the Lions party. A storm of controversy erupted when Gatland said he had chosen Welsh and Scottish players because they were on tour near by, in Australasia, whereas England were in Argentina and Ireland in Japan and the time difference involved would have had an adverse effect on those players. This meant that experienced players such as England's Joe Launchbury and Dylan Hartley were overlooked in favour of the likes of Dacey and Hill, who have ten Wales caps between them.
A pride of Lions legends as well as the British and Irish media criticised the decision to call up players for logistical reasons rather than on merit, with Sky Sports reporting Sir Ian McGeechan, a former Lions player and coach, as saying: "It's that geography part – where you are shouldn't determine that you're in a Lions jersey."
The criticism has clearly got to Gatland. In the wake of Tuesday's draw in Wellington, he admitted that it had influenced how he used the bench in the second half. "So much was made about devaluing the jersey, so we made a decision we would try and get through the game with as many of the starting XV as we could," he told reporters.
So while George Kruis and Leigh Halfpenny appeared as substitutes, only Russell from the controversial call-ups appeared – and that was only briefly, while Dan Biggar underwent a head injury assessment (HIA). "I understand people's views," said Gatland. "So we made a collective decision that we make them injury or HIA replacements, which is what happened on two occasions."
The New Zealand Herald, which at the start of the day had depicted Gatland as a clown in a controversial cartoon, said that "having his game strategy influenced by public opinion was a stunning revelation". The Guardian agrees, describing it as an "extraordinary admission", particularly as fresh legs were urgently required in the final quarter as the Hurricanes launched their fightback.
The Lions had hoped to finish their midweek matches with a win, and they were well placed at half-time as they led 23-7. But a rash clear-out from Iain Henderson allowed the Hurricanes back into the game. With the Ireland lock in the sin-bin, the Kiwis scored 14 points to level the scores at 31-31 and leave the midweek side with a record of played four, won 1, drawn 1 and lost 2.
As for the clown caper, Gatland brushed it off, saying: "It’s just part of professional sport. I’m not worried about what any newspaper draws me up as. I couldn’t give a toss if that’s happening. I just hope it was a happy clown."
Courtney Lawes and Ian Henderson stake Test claims in Lions thriller
Hurricanes 31 Lions 31
Honours were even when the final midweek game of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand ended in Wellington.
The tourists appeared in control, leading 31-17 midway through the second half, but a yellow card for Ian Henderson minutes after George North had a try ruled out for stepping into touch changed everything.
The Lions would have been home and dry after 62 minutes had the Wales winger not gone into touch and when Henderson was harshly sin-binned for clearing out Jordie Barrett three minutes later, the Hurricanes took full advantage.
First Wes Goosen and then Vaea Fifita touched down for the Hurricanes to level the scores and set up a thrilling finish.
Both sides went for the win in the final seconds but Dan Biggar's attempted drop goal two minutes after the final whistle fell just short to bring the contest to a close.
Despite his yellow card, Irish lock Henderson was the man of the match for the tourists and put forward a convincing case for inclusion in Saturday's Test squad.
Biggar was also impressive at fly-half, where his duel with Hurricanes centre Ngani Laumape was at times seismic. North, forced to play at centre after an early injury to Robbie Henshaw, did his chances no harm with some strong carries and a first-half try.
North's try came after a kick from Leigh Halfpenny, who replaced Henshaw, sandwiched by two tries for Scottish winger Tommy Seymour. The first came after an interception by Greig Laidlaw and the second after the break, when he touched down as the Lions made the most of a sin-binning for Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.
Coach Warren Gatland's decision to take off Courtney Lawes and replace him with George Kruis early in the second half could be telling. Last week, he took of Elliot Daly early in the Tuesday game and he was later selected in the Test XV.
However, it was Gatland's use of the bench, or lack of it, that raised eyebrows. With Henderson in the sin bin and the Lions under the cosh, he "left six fresh players, all desperate for action, on the bench", says Owen Slot of The Times.
"All were of Test class, all had played good Test rugby, and they were left kicking their heels as the Lions on the field slowed. Instead, he let the starters, shattered, settle for a draw and the home team scored twice inside a few minutes."
Lions bolters - who is in contention for the Test 23?
Both Ian Henderson and Courtney Lawes had legitimate claims to press, says Mick Cleary of the Daily Telegraph. "Henderson had a stormer until his brain fade, showing a nice touch in the build-up to George North’s try and made several other telling charges. It was a powerful display only for him to blot his copybook.
"Lawes did his cause no harm, getting through the chores that are expected of a top-flight lock: fiery, aggressive and involved. The combo served the Lions well on the night."
With a shake-up in the Test pack likely, the duo had the most to gain, says Louise Gwilliam of the BBC.
"Lawes - who will have made fewer headlines than Henderson - had an impressive game, carrying well and securing decent line-out ball. He was hauled off with 30 minutes to play, which could well be an indication of Gatland's thinking."
The back three:
"Jack Nowell was enterprising while there was a two-try cameo from Tommy Seymour with fellow wing, George North, also more prominent than he has been, getting the other," says Cleary of the Telegraph.
But realistically it is only North who has a chance of making the Test side. Whether he did enough is debatable.
Nowell has been enterprising in recent games, but is unlikely to impress Gatland enough to warrant a place in the 23.