Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 March 2018

Gatland rings the changes as Lions go for broke

Phillips the biggest loser as Bowe gets nod to face fired-up Aussies

Conor George

Conor George

Nothing has quite the same galvanising effect on a team as competition for places, a belief that Warren Gatland is putting to the test this weekend.

Gatland's loyalty to some players has been a contentious issue on tour so far. His perseverance with Sam Warburton, for example, remains a puzzlement. The Lions captain did little last weekend to suggest he is a better option than either Justin Tipuric or Sean O'Brien.

However, the Lions coach is to be applauded for making changes for this weekend's second Test.

It would have been difficult to disagree had he resisted the temptation to freshen up the team as all he had to do was point to a winning start to the series as justification.

Two changes – replacing Paul O'Connell and Alex Corbisiero – were forced on him, but he has added four unforced switches, with the biggest beneficiary being Ireland's Tommy Bowe and possibly the biggest surprise being the jettisoning of scrum-half Mike Phillips.

The Wales international is fit and available for selection and while Gatland did suggest that he is being held in reserve for next weekend's final Test, the reality is he has paid the ultimate price for a poor performance last weekend.


Ben Youngs is promoted to the starting team with Conor Murray providing back-up from the bench.

Sean O'Brien is also included among the replacements and has Tom Croft for company as the England international has been leap-frogged by Dan Lydiate.

Bowe takes over from Alex Cuthbert on the right wing following the Ireland international's return to full fitness.

As expected, Geoff Parling replaces O'Connell, while Mako Vunipola takes over from Corbisiero.

"It's just horses for courses this week really," said Gatland in explanation of the personnel changes.

"We feel Australia are going to be absolutely desperate for this. Four years ago it was a brutal second Test in South Africa and it's going to be incredibly physical again this time around.

"They have to throw the kitchen sink at us and we've got to be prepared to handle that, soak it up and move on."

Gatland's selection is not without risk. There is no specialist second-row cover for example, which is an indication of just how devastating the loss of O'Connell is as well as being a nod to the strength of Australia's defensive line-out, in particular.

Croft was selected last weekend to offer the Lions an extra option out of touch, but Australia squeezed the middle and the tail so effectively that most of the line-outs went to the front, with both O'Connell and Croft being under-utilised.

It is fair to assume that O'Connell was going to have a far greater influence out of touch this weekend, but his enforced absence has forced a change in thinking and tactics, with the Lions opting for greater heft in the starting team and on the bench.

"Dan (Lydiate) is incredibly physical and we feel the potential of Tom and Sean coming off the bench gives us a lot of impact, particularly in the second-half," said Gatland.

"We've made some calculated changes to the side for this match that will hopefully make us a better team," he added.

The challenge will now be to fine-tune the balance within the team and identify the alternative choices that will not just replicate last weekend's achievement, but advance them.

The issues that demand attention have been well documented. The Lions must be more efficient at the breakdown, must become more stringent in defence and must seek greater penetration when they create opportunities.

The stakes have never been higher for a Lions tour, as Gatland alluded to. The Lions have not won a series in 16 years and it has been suggested that nothing short of outright victory will keep the concept alive.

"We are desperate to win the series," stated Gatland. "And I think world rugby wants the Lions to be successful.

"We are well aware that a winning Lions series will help things going forward. If we don't win then the pressure comes on and the criticism falls on us. There is no hiding from the fact that it is important for the Lions to win."

The change at scrum-half is designed to secure fast ball for Jonathan Sexton – a service he was denied in the first game.

It is likely he will again be denied quick ball from the line-out as the Lions are likely to throw to the front once more, but the plan will be for Youngs to hit the rucks and get the ball away in one fluid movement to facilitate front-foot ball for Sexton and the outside backs.

It is another risk, because there is no in-between with Youngs. He is invariably either very good or very poor. Murray is in form and his relationship with Sexton almost swung selection in his favour.

He will see action off the bench at some juncture.


There is a certain lack of subtlety to the Lions' selection, something Australian coach Robbie Deans picked-up on – "they've made some decisions about how to win the game obviously," he said – and there is a voracious hunger there to wrap the series up this weekend.

That's one of the reasons why Gatland has opted to parachute Bowe straight into the starting team ahead of one of last weekend's try-scorers Cuthbert.

"Tommy is a massive big-game player," said the coach. "You watch him at training and see how seamless he is. The one thing you can't coach is experience.

"Experienced players just come in and are able to slot in really quickly, and he did that in training on Tuesday morning. You could see the experience and quality was there, and that will give a boost to some of the other players.

"It was like George North being fit last week. It was a boost for the squad and the players around him."

Gatland is known to like a punt and he's certainly taken one this weekend.

There is the security in knowing that the series will still be alive if they lose, but the prospect of wrapping it up with a week to spare is an irresistible temptation that has provoked an 'all-in' gamble from the Kiwi.

Irish Independent

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