So the teams are chosen, the dice are thrown and, according to the weather forecasters we’re in for a wet and windy night in Wellington.
The All-Blacks have not made any really startling selections. Naholo is not as solid in defence as Dagg so is a departure from the fullback, defensive wing/second fullback, attacking wing they’ve played for several years now, however he’s a far more balanced and defensive player than Ioane or Savea so his choice is not a shock. Likewise, while I might have selected Goodhue in case there’s an early replacement and Laumape needs to back up after Tuesday for an extended period, he had an excellent game and no one can really complain about his selection.
The Lions though… the rugby press and blogs are using terms like game, last chance saloon and worse. Some selections seem to make sense - Jones and Kruis were not dominant, at least one had to be swapped and Itoje looked good when he came on. Opinion was divided but I’m not surprised in such a young tight five that Gatland has stuck with Alun Wyn. Whether Itoje will have the same impact from the start remains to be seen. Warburton for O’Mahoney also makes sense as it offers them more at the breakdown and, probably more importantly, an experienced captain who usually has a good rapport with the referee. The Lions certainly lost out to Read in that facet of the game last week. Some think it will cost them at the lineout, but Warburton has been used well at the lineout by Wales so we will have to see.
Playing Farrell at 12 is more of a gamble. It gives them a lot of kickers and a very Kiwi-looking first and second five-eighth first and second playmaker. While Farrell is a good defensive player, closing down Read, SBW and Alby, and later Ardie Savea, any or all of whom will be licking their lips at running through his channel and preventing the offloads and the second and third runners that the All Blacks will bring is a whole different challenge and one he has rarely experienced. In addition it means the Lions have stood down one of their better defenders and put together a combination at 10-12-13 with just over an hour of playing time on tour and from three different countries. The Te’o-Davies combination had had every Saturday match to get used to each other and looked good in both attack and defence but that’s gone. Gatland suggested the Sexton-Farrell-Davies combination is meant to bring ‘more attack’ to the Lions, which they need, but the critics will point out this combination didn’t look creative last Saturday and will question if it can be creative this Saturday. Yes, the Lions did score a try while they were on the park, Rhys Webb scored a pick and dive off the base of a ruck that was right on the try line anyway.
Lions fans can take heart from the fact that the referee blew most of this tight five out of the contest at the scrum when the Lions faced the Crusaders a few weeks ago. Those who believe every silver lining is a silver fern in disguise will suggest Hansen et al will have looked at the video, the players will have learnt to (as they did on that day) and Retallik offers them more in the tight five so it might not be as one-sided in the scrum this time.
One more factor needs to be taken into account. Although Eden Park is a sporting fortress (the last time the All Blacks lost there Forest Gump was the big news at the Box Office and this guy called Pete Sampras was winning his first Wimbledon, if you can remember him), the All Blacks typically improve throughout a series.
So, on to the predictions. In the wet, if Garces takes against the All Blacks’ scrum, the Lions could win this in burst of three. However, even in the pouring rain, the All Blacks are good enough to handle the ball and they will look to offload more, to negate Warburton and Itoje and the Lions potentially improved turnover play. Assuming no injuries that mean Barrett has to slide back to fullback and reduce their creativity as well… then I can only see one result. The weather and the referee might combine to make it look closer than last week but I suspect not. The question might be more, will we see a performance to eclipse Carter’s 2005 masterclass?
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