Belfast Telegraph

Gatland facing a dilemma over who starts at fly half

 

By David Kelly

There are two ways to interpret the unexpected delay of a team selection. It could be that the head coach is in the happy position of surveying a surfeit of riches from which to pick, and hence finds it fiendishly difficult to alight upon the correct choices.

Or it could be that he ain't.

Warren Gatland's Lions XV to face the Maoris in Rotorua will attempt to mirror the side for the first Test against New Zealand as close as is practicable - whether they can resemble a team is an entirely different matter.

Up front, at least, the better performers are standing out, and there will be a confidence when it comes to sending out a pack, but even slightly edging the forwards battle won't be enough to win a Test match against the All Blacks, let alone a series.

Neither will the improving defence. Gatland's side must score tries because his native land will do so by the shed-load, but a horrendous run of profligacy - a total of 32 line-breaks has resulted in just two five-pointers - is the most damning statistic of this tour.

Regardless of any debate about the quality of the back three - Ronan O'Gara is not alone in hinting that Gatland might have called in Keith Earls ahead of even Simon Zebo for some X-factor - the first object of the exercise is to get the ball wide.

As Joe Schmidt's Ireland discovered in recent times, this task is handicapped when you sacrifice a play-making second five-eighth - what the Kiwis call their No.12 - for a player who is primarily chosen for defensive strength and carrying. Some of the best rugby played by the Lions was sparked by the presence of two ball-players, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton, playing in tandem, despite the preposterous suggestion, prompted by the Lions themselves, that the duo have not trained together as such. O'Gara concedes that, as much as the defensive risks may be too great to start them, the attacking rewards may be substantial enough to finish with them.

"I don't see how he can start the two of them in a Test," O'Gara says of the dilemma facing his old Ireland boss.

"It's a good idea maybe with 30 minutes to go, but starting Johnny at 10 means playing Farrell at 12, and physically I just don't think it's a good idea for the first 30 minutes against Sonny Bill Williams or whoever they are going to play in the centre.

"They are two 10s. Farrell plays his best rugby at 10. He's an exceptional player when he has full control. When he's at 12 it's a little bit harder… you could see against the Crusaders, it was probably sprung on them so quickly they had calls where Farrell was at 12.

"So you're hitting 9, 12 and you're looking for him to win the gain-line. That's not his game… unless you're seriously planning to come up with a different game-plan."

And so, as O'Gara sees it, his old sparring partner Sexton will be the unlucky loser riding pine until the final quarter.

"Up to yesterday I would probably have gone with Farrell but I don't know," says O'Gara, referring to Farrell's faux pas against the Highlanders.

"His performances for the last 24 months have been better than anyone else's as a 10. But he missed a bad kick. I know it's only once but it was still a bad kick, so that's why the alarm bells went off in my head.

"Are they going to play Leigh Halfpenny in this game to kick the points?"

He answers his own question in the negative; but there are so many others to ponder behind the scrum, the arena in which the differences between these two outfits will be ultimately decided, with the clock ticking down quickly.

"Who's the standout midfield back for the Lions? Like it's probably Farrell but there's still a doubt over that," continues O'Gara.

"You could play Ben Te'o or Robbie Henshaw at 12, you could play Jonathan Davies or Jonathan Joseph at 13, but who's on the team? I'd say George North is a definite. They seem to have not used him. Who's going to play on the other wing? Liam Williams?

"I don't think Anthony Watson will play (at full-back). Look at him in the Aviva (Ireland v England), he couldn't handle that. Mentally that was too much for him."

As a former series-winning All Black out-half, Dan Carter, still playing at Racing 92 where O'Gara is an assistant coach; O'Gara himself played in the 2005 series so knows what it takes. And he knows that will involve substantially more than what the Lions have got at the moment.

"Defence can win or lose Test matches but you need to finish off the small number of opportunities that you get," he says. "The Lions have made line-breaks and have left a lot of tries out on the field because of simple mistakes in that attacking game.

"If you had a big, strong guaranteed number one midfielder for the Lions, your go-to man for go-forward ball and defensively sound, then you could potentially have Sexton and Farrell playing together.

"But nobody is really putting their hand up. Farrell started the Crusaders game brilliantly. He really controlled things, but when you see him having to take ball into contact as part of the midfield role it feels like you lose a bit of a playmaker, and he needs to be in control.

"I originally thought that Farrell should be starting at No.10, but the more time has gone, maybe the better option is Sexton and Farrell.

"I'm sure they'll experiment at some stage because they are going to have to settle on something pretty quickly to build up that trust with the midfield and the players around them."

Time is the greatest enemy of that trust. "There are a number of really good players but we are seeing them as individuals," says O'Gara. "Trust takes time.

"And you can see that they are not reading each other; it's only normal. Because you are a great player, it doesn't mean that you are going to have a great collective.

"Great teams are built on trust, it's very hard in such a short space of time, especially over there, to build that. That will be their challenge."

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