Lions add more razzle with Farrell, Sexton partnership
Anything less than perfection and things could 'get very messy'
Almost twelve years ago to the day Lions coach Clive Woodward sprang a surprise by selecting Jonny Wilkinson at inside-centre against the All Blacks. The England fly-half was picked out of position to accommodate Wales' Stephen Jones, a move that The Guardian described as putting "an extraordinary number of eggs into the same fragile basket and, should the Lions lose badly, it could get very messy".
Wind forward to the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand and Warren Gatland has imitated Woodward by selecting another English fly-half at inside-centre. Owen Farrell will wear the no 12 shirt in Wellington on Saturday night with Ireland's Jonathan Sexton at 10. Gatland justified his choice by saying that the pair "have played well and it gives us that attacking option in the 10-12 channel".
The strategy could well work, but it will require a near flawless display from both men to bear fruit. Anything less than perfection and things could, as they did 12 years ago when the Lions lost 21-3, "get very messy".
Former Lions and England fly-half Stuart Barnes, now a commentator for Sky Sports, describes Gatland's decision as a "gamble" because "Owen Farrell is not the greatest defender at 12 and Johnny Sexton will be targeted". The Irishman has been the victim of numerous cheap shots during his career and the Lions will trust French referee Romain Poite to police the 80 minutes with his usual Gallic diligence.
Meanwhile, says Barnes, Sexton and Farrell will need to ensure they exert more control than was the case in the first Test. "Sexton and Farrell are the two best game managers the Lions have outside Conor Murray, therefore they need to force New Zealand deep," he said.
Another former fly-half, Wales' Jonathan Davies, told BBC Sport that the selection of Sexton and Farrell was "the last roll of the dice". The pair have only played 74 minutes together on tour and now they must combine to defeat the world champions. "It is the 10-12 combination that I would have liked right from the start, but they have not really had the chance to play together in the warm-up matches," said Davies. "It is a worry that the have not played together more. I'm surprised. If this had been Gatland's ploy from the start of the tour I would have played them a bit more before the Tests.. If he loses on Saturday, he will get stick."
The All Blacks will also see the selection as a gamble, one to be exploited even if it means their opponents posing them more questions in attack. "With the two No 10s they will probably bring a bit more razzle," said All Black centre Anton Lienert-Brown, who will partner Sonny Bill Williams on Saturday. "It means a different mindset in defence. [In the first Test] it was part of their game plan to run down that No 10 channel. They have two No 10s this week and that could be something we look to expose."
Yet for all the talk about the Owen-Sexton selection, Saturday's second Test will be decided up front and in particular at the breakdown. Last week the New Zealand dominated this area, despite it being a perceived strength of the tourists, and that's why Gatland has brought in Sam Warburton on the flank and Maro Itoje in the second-row. "In rugby, it's very much a case of 99 times out of 100 the more physical side wins," said Warburton, who captains the side in Wellington. "People might not like to hear that but it is the truth."
And the Welshman declared that he and his teammates are ready for 80 minutes of utter commitment and confrontation. "I always pride myself that I'll never quit, ever," he said. "You need 15 guys who stay on it for the whole 80 minutes and those guys who come off the bench, exactly the same. You get that in a Lions team. No heads ever drop because everyone's so competitive and they're all leaders in their own way."