Belfast Telegraph

Lions: Warren Gatland has one tweak to make for the biggest game of his life

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Whether it was the five new caps to face Scotland in 2000, selecting 13 Ospreys for his first Six Nations game for Wales or his dropping of Brian O'Driscoll and Peter O'Mahony, Warren Gatland has always been fond of a big selection call.

In the week of the biggest game of his life, he must mull over the decision of whether to stick or twist for the return to Eden Park.

Unlike the decider four years ago in Australia, he is dealing with a winning team and has no fresh injuries or suspensions to contend with. Any change will come from him.

His team have momentum going to Eden Park. Their win over New Zealand in Wellington was far from perfect, but he stuck with 12 of the starting XV for the duration, withdrawing only his two props and second-row Alun-Wyn Jones; spurning fresh legs for the game-management on the field.

He had impact on his bench, but the decision suggests there is a trust in those who started the game to finish the job. Whether that extends to another 80 minutes is the key to Gatland's decision this week.

Scrum coach Graham Rowntree has suggested that the Lions' poor discipline could cost places when the coaches assemble to discuss the selection ahead of the decider.

"We have got to sort it out because it is going to kill us," he said. "We have to sit them down and show them every day. We can't be doing this. We have to keep reiterating that point."

Could it lead to changes?

"Maybe," he said.

"We will have to look at it in the cold light of day. It is not the same individuals. There is a trait to what we are doing. We can't lose a Test series on the back of some stupid penalties. That would be unacceptable. How do you live with that for the rest of your life?"

So, the suggestion is that the team will be asked to find the solutions themselves.

There is no game this week for players to force their case, while the trip to Queenstown has limited training opportunities for fringe players to force the coaches' hands.

But when the coaches look at the team, where might they find room to make changes?

Back three

Gatland is a big fan of Jack Nowell, but didn't bring the English back on for the end-game, and the combination of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly have been together for both Tests and are getting to know one another.

They have looked dangerous, if a little insecure when the All Blacks get their kicking going, and there is a chance that the coach might look to inject Nowell's energy to proceedings in order to add something different for the final game of a long season.

The winger has been a slow burner on this tour, but found form in the latter midweek games and knows where the try-line is. Still, he seems more likely to make his impact off the bench.

Stick or twist? Stick.

Midfield/Half-backs

You have to bundle these positions together given the impact of one on the other as Gatland weighs up whether to go for his combination from Test one or Test two.

Ben Te'o was unlucky to lose his place for the Wellington win, but the way Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell got the backline moving suggests that they'll be in position again.

Sonny Bill Williams' suspension will have little effect with the talented and direct rugby league convert Ngani Laumape likely to fill his jersey. He's not as rangy, but his carrying is just as punchy and he'll test that 10/12 channel.

Gatland deployed Sean O'Brien as a minder to protect the pair of out-halves in defence, but they still managed to make gains when the flanker was sucked into rucks.

Yet Te'o is likely to have to wait for his chance to come on, given the attacking reward that the Lions get from an in-form Sexton and Farrell dove-tailing. There's more to come.

Outside them there'll be no selection drama around Jon Davies this time around given his excellent form, while Conor Murray's hold on the No.9 shirt is firm.

Stick or twist? Stick.

Front-row

The combination of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong has been together against the All Black front-row in three games now, given the same trio played for the Crusaders against the Lions four weeks ago.

They are beginning to get to know each other quite well at this stage and this is one area where there is room for Lions change.

Vunipola brings a lot to the table, but he lost his head during the second Test and his ill-discipline could have cost his team the game.

Jack McGrath is a world-class scrummager who could be primed for a big performance from the start. Then Gatland can unleash a fit and fresh Vunipola off the bench, hopefully ready to prove a point.

George and Furlong look secure, but this may be the area where Gatland shakes things up.

Stick or twist? Twist.

Second-row

The engine-room combination worked well in Wellington and crowd favourite Maro Itoje is a banker to start. The question is, who starts alongside him?

Alun Wyn Jones brought huge physicality to proceedings last Saturday, bristling with the previous week's disappointment, and having captained the team to a series win four years ago he seems primed to start again.

Gatland has options - Courtney Lawes did well off the bench and Iain Henderson hasn't put a foot wrong since his opening night howler - but the likelihood is that the same duo will start and the Ulsterman will miss out.

Stick or Twist? Stick.

Back-row

The Lions will have breathed a sigh of relief when news of O'Brien's disciplinary hearing came through, meaning the trio which Gatland kept intact for almost the entire 80 minutes - the Tullow man came off briefly when Vunipola was off for the yellow card - can continue.

That means CJ Stander is likely to remain on the bench, given he's the loose forward who can offer the most impact late in a game, and that means no place for Peter O'Mahony, who skippered the team in the first Test.

Stick or Twist? Stick.

Predicted team for the series decider: L Williams; A Watson, J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, J George, T Furlong; M Itoje, AW Jones; S Warburton (capt), S O'Brien, T Faletau.

Replacements: K Owens, M Vunipola, K Sinckler, C Lawes, CJ Stander, R Webb, B Te'o, J Nowell.

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