The battle at the breakdown is set to be decisive for the competitive nature of Saturday’s second Test between the All Blacks and British & Irish Lions, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It’s been an entertaining week in the lead-up to this encounter in Wellington, with the All Blacks fending off accusations of foul play, while the New Zealand Herald responded by stirring up a storm, with the depiction of Lions coach Warren Gatland as a clown.
Gatland laughed it off, but there was nothing light-hearted about his relatively cut-throat selections for the second Test, most notably dropping the impressive Ben Te’o in order to enforce a Johnny Sexton-Owen Farrell 10-12 combination.
In addition, Gatland has brought tour captain Sam Warburton into the starting lineup to apply more pressure at the breakdown, while elevating Maro Itoje into the run-on XV to add extra physicality.
The changes might surprise some, but they are effectively a knee-jerk reaction to the problem areas the Lions faced in last weekend’s disappointing 30-15 defeat.
The Lions went into the first Test with a mindset to committ minimal numbers at the breakdown in order to allow most players to fan into a tight-knit defensive line, while maintaining a high-paced linespeed that had previously proved so effective on tour.
However, the All Blacks countered this by playing off No 9 Aaron Smith, with big ball-carriers such as Brodie Retallick punching the ball up, before possession was quickly recycled.
The Lions now look set to adopt a different approach at the breakdown, with Warburton’s key strength being his ability to slow the ball down or win turnovers, while Sean O’Brien will dovetail in an effective 'tandem fetcher' approach.
The Lions have sacrificed an expert lineout exponent in Peter O'Mahony, but Itoje will not only look to make his presence felt at this set piece, but across the field.
It was commonly acknowledged that the Lions were thrown on to the back foot last Saturday as a result of the sheer physicality of the All Blacks, who fronted up in the face of claims that the Lions believed they would gain the ascendancy in the forward exchanges.
In this regard, it’s somewhat surprising that Gatland has jettisoned the abrasive Te’o, but the selection of Sexton and Farrell alongside one another is aimed at providing the Lions with more attacking opportunities.
With two decision-making ball players at 10 and 12, the Lions should have the distribution capabilities to shift the ball out wide, while also increasing their kicking options, albeit perhaps at the expense of gainline dominance.
The Lions are also likely to persist with their contestable kicking tactics through Conor Murray, with the All Blacks having been forced into a back-three reshuffle as a result of the injury to superb aerial fullback Ben Smith.
Ultimately, the Lions should be far more competitive at the breakdown, but by sacrificing numbers in the defensive line, one can expect the All Blacks’ peerless runners to effectively attack whatever space is on offer.
The hosts’ outstanding scramble defence should also nullify any additional threat the Lions may pose out wide with ball in hand, which should be enough to see the Kiwis to another relatively comfortable victory.
All Blacks – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Ngani Laumape.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Sam Warburton (c), 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 CJ Stander, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images