Belfast Telegraph

Gatland must gamble but All Blacks look too good

 

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Warren Gatland has re-shuffled his pack but it is Steve Hansen who holds the aces. Lurking behind the facade of this series was the cold, hard reality of the challenge the Lions faced. How could any coach pull a team together in such circumstances to take on the greatest winning machine in rugby?

It has been billed in these parts as rugby's greatest series and the locals have been raving about the quality and intensity of the first Test in Auckland, but in the end their team won comfortably and there are not many backing the Lions to level matters.

Having beaten their guests by playing off their scrum-half, coming around the corner and winning the scrum battle last Saturday it would be no surprise to see the hosts change tack and still win handsomely.

They have kept the same personnel by and large, but they can morph into whatever shape is needed to get the job done.

If the Lions match them in the areas they were better last week, they will adapt and thrive in another way.

The key for the tourists is to get scoreboard pressure and make this team doubt themselves.

For all that they have been on a winning run, Chicago aside, since the 2015 World Cup, they have rarely been asked hard questions of themselves.

They have lost key leaders since that time and injury has robbed them of Dane Coles, Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty. The team is hugely talented, but there is a lack of experience running through a number of key positions.

It rarely bothers them, but then they are rarely asked the right questions. In those moments after half-time in Auckland there was a sense that the black wall was creaking, but the Lions couldn't turn their momentum into points.

The key tomorrow is getting ahead, staying disciplined and taking the world champions to an uncomfortable place. The problem is, the target keeps shifting.

"Quality teams don't lie down," Hansen asserted yesterday. "They stand up and get counted. Losing hurts. It sucks. It comes with a lot of pain, so you don't want to do it, especially when you are a quality team, because you are not used to it.

"I think they will come with everything they've got, and we need to be prepared for that and bring everything we've got to match it.

"We've got a talented side, if we prepare well, we are hard to beat. And they are no different. They've got plenty of good players. How they choose to play with that talent will be interesting.

"He (Gatland) is going to second-guess what we do, so are we going to play off No 9 again? Then we have to second-guess if we play off No 9, are they going to shut that door? And if they shut the door, what other door have they just opened?

"You can't do everything. That's the beautiful thing about our game - it is all about space. And if you can find it, then you are in business.

"First of all, you have got to go forward, and there is going to be a tremendous battle there because they will be a little wounded from last time out and they will want to prove a point.

"We have to be on-song ourselves if we are going to win."

Hansen's key coaching philosophy came from his father, Des, a noted coach who said "you get all your options off the opposition".

The Lions' mission is to plug as many holes as they can.

"We have got to stop their momentum off No 9," Gatland said. "But they may come with a different plan. They may look to throw the ball around, they may plan to kick the ball a bit more and we have got to be ready.

"Discipline is a key for us, making sure we don't give away soft unnecessary penalties. There were two or three last week which changed the momentum of the game. We saw that against the Hurricanes again on Tuesday night.

"There were a couple of soft penalties which were pretty costly for us in the second half.

"We have obviously got to be more physical up front and the players are aware of that and we have spoken about that as a group."

The conditions will play a part, the Lions have been berated for their use of the kicking game everywhere they've gone in New Zealand, but it would be no surprise if the home side took to the boot.

For all of their counter-attacking brilliance last week, the tourists were vulnerable under the dropping ball.

On the other side of that is the combination of Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell.

Sexton's inclusion expands the Lions' options. Ben Te'o is a key weapon who will be utilised off the bench, but the Irish out-half brings experience and game-management that was sorely missing when Farrell wore the No 10 shirt.

If they are to level the series, the men in red need their play-maker to have the game of his life. His form has been bubbling and he already has an All Black scalp; he is central to his side's success.

Given the poor forecast, the kicking game will be key and in losing Smith they have been left exposed with the inexperienced Rieko Ioane on one wing and the positionally challenged Waisake Naholo on the other.

Both are brilliant going forward, but the Lions' half-backs must take them way beyond their comfort zone.

First, they need quick ball and the changes to the pack are designed to rectify the embarrassing physical deficiencies in their game last week.

In dropping Peter O'Mahony and George Kruis he has sacrificed lineout nous for power. Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock will be licking their lips at getting into 22-year-old caller Maro Itoje's head as he strategises at set-piece.

If they lose that primary possession then they could be in trouble, but equally they'll hope that a loosening of the All Black shackles will bring their pressure game into play.

If Andy Farrell's defence can force errors, then they have a chance. Similarly, the counter-attack may be well-flagged but it remains hard to stop.

The All Black bench was stronger last week, but the inclusion of Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander and Ben Te'o suggests that the Lions will get more impact this time.

New cap Ngani Laumape is a brilliant talent, but the Lions will want him coming into a game where the stakes are high.

But it is one thing knowing what to do, but another to carry it out in this most pressurised environment.

If the Lions pull it off it will be an incredible achievement, but the world champions look too good to fail.

Belfast Telegraph

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