Wednesday 23 August 2017

Now is not the time for Gatland to shuffle deck - McGrath for Vunipola the only change needed for decider

Mako Vunipola (left) and Jack McGrath (centre) – seen here in training alongside Dan Biggar, Anthony Watson and Ben Te'o – look to be in a straight race for a spot in the front row in the final Test on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Mako Vunipola (left) and Jack McGrath (centre) – seen here in training alongside Dan Biggar, Anthony Watson and Ben Te'o – look to be in a straight race for a spot in the front row in the final Test on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Whether it was the five new caps to face Scotland in 2000; selecting 13 Ospreys for his first Six Nations game with 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 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 the Lions' poor discipline could cost places when the coaches assemble to discuss the selection ahead of the decider.

The way Johnny Sexton (pictured) and Owen Farrell got the backline moving suggests they will be in position again. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The way Johnny Sexton (pictured) and Owen Farrell got the backline moving suggests they will be in position again. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"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 the team will be asked to find the solutions themselves.

There is no midweek 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.

When the management group look at the team, where might they find room to make changes.

BACK THREE

Gatland is a big fan of Jack Nowell, but the English back only had a brief cameo in the second Test as a six-minute HIA replacement for Anthony Watson.

The combination of Liam Williams, 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. However, there is a chance the coach might look to inject Nowell's energy to proceedings 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 together given the impact of one on the other as Gatland weighs up whether to go for his combination from the first or second Test.

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

Sonny Bill Williams's 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 New Zealand still managed to make gains when the flanker was sucked into rucks.

Yet Te'o will likely 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 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 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 full 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 off the bench, and that would result in O'Mahony being left out again, after skippering the team in the first Test.

Stick or Twist? Stick

 

Predicted team for third test

L Williams (Wal); A Watson (Eng), J Davies (Wal), O Farrell (Eng), E Daly (Eng); J Sexton (Irl), C Murray (Irl); J McGrath (Irl), J George (Eng), T Furlong (Irl); M Itoje (Eng), AW Jones (Wal); S Warburton (Wal, capt), S O'Brien (Irl), T Faletau (Wal). Reps: K Owens (Wal), M Vunipola (Eng), K Sinckler (Eng), C Lawes (Eng) , CJ Stander (Irl), R Webb (Wal), B Te'o (Eng), J Nowell (Eng)

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