Belfast Telegraph

Cake Tin showdown is a recipe to make or break the struggling tourists' careers


By Tony Ward

Three changes in personnel and one positional switch to a Lions selection that looks confused, as against an All Black side showing but two changes and both enforced. It sure doesn't take any depth of insider knowledge to appreciate which camp in Wellington is in the better shape ahead of tomorrow's kick off (8.35am).

There will be plenty of time for overall post-mortems in the immediate aftermath of this so far disappointing tour but I think it fair to say that a second Test defeat in the Westpac Stadium, or as it is more affectionately known the Cake Tin, and the 2017 Lions will be history in the most negative sense.

As 'must win' games go in the lives of the 23 players involved, this is without doubt the biggest test of their careers to date irrespective of age or caps. This is the one that will determine their worth as Lions. Lose and the next week in Auckland doesn't bear thinking about.

I already feel for those not involved tomorrow because bar one or two exceptions - depending on injury - they are already excess baggage and more to the point they know it.

Barring a serious injury, I cannot think of anything worse in rugby - and I would assume in other codes too - than being left outside the match day squad on tour. Being out of the team is bad enough but not making match day involvement leaves that flight home the thought uppermost on most minds as we enter the final phase. Of course they will make all the right soundings and at least attempt to do the right things but to be excess to needs on a losing tour is the ultimate rugby nightmare.

To that end winning in Wellington is the only show in town. Despite last week's emphatic defeat it is not mission impossible but were the tourists to take this series down to the last game then winning tomorrow would be one to rank with the very best in Lions rugby ever and I include '71 and '74.

To that end Warren Gatland has named a 23 that confuses and delights. He is not afraid of change and that trait is admirable provided, of course, it is with a purpose. The key to at least unsettling this particular All Black side and that high tempo front foot rugby is in delaying the breakdown through power and balance in engagement over the ball. Based on last week's performance the re-selection of Alun Wyn Jones is questionable with the finger of blame clearly pointing at Peter O'Mahony and George Kruis given the absence of both from tomorrow's squad.

I do get the rationale behind Maro Itoje's inclusion for Kruis but given the second row dominance of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick at Eden Park the case for Itoje alongside the even more abrasive Courtney Lawes was very strong thereby providing, through Iain Henderson (awesome against the Hurricanes), even greater impact off the bench. Sam Warburton for O'Mahony is sacrificing that extra string to the line out for ball winning or at least ball slowing potential at the breakdown and nothing to do with leadership. It is a difficult rationale to counter.

Beyond that, the selection of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as effectively old style New Zealand five eights surprises and, if anything, is a last throw of the dice.

Jonathan Davies for Brian O'Driscoll came up trumps in the third Test in Australia and if Sexton and Farrell click in a Lions win tomorrow then for Gatland this will be another Davies/O'Driscoll moment.

The real plus would be (and I emphasise weather permitting) the ability of one or both to shift the ball with greater pace and accuracy to the back three. While the Lions need to be far more physical at the breakdown they do not need a war of attrition or indeed to have Sonny Bill Williams battering the Sexton/Farrell channel through midfield. It is high risk but with Ben Te'o in reserve to revert to the standard gain line breaking 'square on' strategy if and when required. The former Leinster now England centre has performed the Jamie Robertson, role so loved by Gatland, pretty much to perfection to date. It is a harsh call but one with potential merit although I would feel more comfortable were Andy Farrell not a party to that selection process.

As for New Zealand? With Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty ruled out they just substitute like with like.

Imagine being able to leave players of the quality of Jordie Barrett, Nehe Milner Skudder, Damian McKenzie and Julian Savea out of the match day squad. It is scary.

On ability alone it would be difficult to pick a single Lions player ahead of his counterpart in black. Even Conor Murray trails Aaron Smith at this point in time.

If the Lions can lay down the early marker they intend - tempo and intensity at the breakdown allied to that trademark line speed - then they have the bench to see out the 80 but once again it's New Zealand for me.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph