Warren Gatland is no stranger to making big calls and there are plenty of talking points around his second Test selections.
The debate of Sexton and / or Farrell in the same team and how to combine them has been put to bed for now, or a least until around 10:30 on Saturday morning. Warren Gatland has gone with the Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton at ten with Farrell at inside centre partnering Jonathan Davies.
It is a huge call but at this point in the tour Gatland has nothing to lose, he is pretty much all in on the second test. Win it and there is slight chance of salvation, lose it and a repeat of the 2005 whitewash is very much on the cards.
Brian O’Driscoll in 2013. Now Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell plus the axing of last week’s captain Peter O’Mahon from the match day 23. Gatland does not shirk making the big calls.
Whether we like him or not, in 2013 those big calls landed a 2-1 series win over the Wallabies with O’Driscoll’s replacement, Jonathan Davies, part of a back line that dismantled the Australians in the 3rd test. That was ultimately a positive move to win a test series that was level
Gatland explains his selection rationale below.
This is something entirely different, losing 1-0 and out muscled last weekend, this is a salvage mission, a grasping attempt to take the series to a decider in Auckland on July 8th.
There is no doubt that Farrell and Sexton as a combination offer the Lions a more potent and dynamic attacking threat but playing the two together would have been seen as an unnecessary risk up until now.
Sam Warburton’s return as Captain sees Peter O’Mahony lose his place entirely and is not even named as a replacement while Munster’s CJ Stander comes in on the replacements.
It is a brutal call on O’Mahony to go from captain to sitting in the stands in the space of a week. Speaking at the press conference yesterday Gatland revelled that he delivered the news to O’Mahony privately before the squad announcement.
“It was a tough call. We looked at that and felt it was an opportunity to bring in Sam and Maro who both made an impact off the bench last week.
“We need to get some pressure on the ball and that’s something Sam is excellent at doing and he has got some rugby under his belt now.
“We could have put Peter on the bench and we had a long discussion about that, but CJ Stander has had an outstanding Six Nations and was good the other night with his carries and his physicality, so the impact he is able to bring off the bench could be significant.
“Look, Peter has been very unlucky. He has done a great job for us in terms of the games he has been involved in and the captaincy.
“He’s unlucky enough that we can have got choices and can make changes and use different combinations.”
In the second row, Maro Itoje replaces his national and club team-mate George Kruis to start alongside Alun Wyn Jones as the Lions look to bulk up their pack and add a more solid dimension to their maul.
With Te’o not making the starting XV the Lions will certainly miss his physical presence in the midfield, something that Farrell cannot offer to the same extent. The selection very much points to the Lions wanting to keep the ball moving at pace.
It will however require their accuracy to be streets ahead of where it has been to this point on tour. Staring with just one of either Sexton or Farrell at ten would mean there would be just one main pivot of the attack with most attacking plays being ran off the ten.
Sexton and Farrell have only played 23 minutes together on tour but will now be tasked with spearheading a two-sided attacking game plan capable of reversing the 30-15 defeat in the first Test in Auckland last Saturday.
The inclusion of both will mean that support runners, especially the backs will need to time their lines of running to perfection. The two playmakers will help the Lions bring their back three into action more often. It will also give them an extra kicking option to get into attacking positions.
The Farrell / Sexton combination will also be intended to put the brakes on the All Blacks defence. Having two playmakers of this quality might just slow down their line speed, might just cause them to drift a little, afraid to rush up, knowing that the two are capable of.
Te’o not being at 12 will deprive the Lions of a strong ball-carrying threat in the midfield but will also mean that Farrell will have responsibility for containing the huge physical presence of Sonny Bill Williams. The Murray / Sexton partnership already showed what it takes to beat the All Blacks having been part of the successful Irish side last November.
Put simply, the Lions need to attack the All Blacks, they need to take every chance and they need to be disciplined. One thing worth noting is that the All Blacks will improve from last weekend, they will be better.
It also means that Sexton will resume his regular Ireland half-back partnership with Conor Murray, which was critical to Joe Schmidt’s side’s historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last November, and his selection alongside Farrell gives the Lions two ball-playing distributors in midfield.
When Sexton was asked earlier in the tour about the key to Ireland’s victory against the All Blacks, he said it had been a relentless attacking attitude.
“You can’t sit back against them, that’s the one thing I think the Irish guys might try and influence with the other guys, that you’ve got to keep attacking no matter what the scoreline,”
Only if the Lions can impose their attacking game will the be able to beat the All Blacks on Saturday. The home side scored three tries last weekend without ever really opening up their attacking game and if the Lions are to stand a chance of winning this weekend, then the will need to score 3 to 4 tries to level the series.
Gatland’s cards are very much on the table, his hand revealed. Roll on Saturday to see what becomes of second test.
British and Irish Lions:
L Williams (Wales), A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), O Farrell, E Daly (both England), J Sexton, C Murray (both Ireland), M Vunipola, J George (both England), T Furlong (Ireland), M Itoje (England), AW Jones, S Warburton (both Wales, capt), S O’Brien (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: K Owens (Wales), J McGrath (Ireland), K Sinckler, C Lawes (both England), CJ Stander (Ireland), R Webb (Wales), B Te’o, J Nowell (both England).
I Dagg; W Naholo, A Lienert-Brown, S B Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith; J Moody, C Taylor, O Franks, B Retallick, S Whitelock, J Kaino, S Cane, K Read (capt).
Replacements: N Harris, W Crockett, C Faumuina, S Barrett, A Savea, TJ Perenara, A Crruden, N Laumape.