Thursday 14 December 2017

Lions' failure to front up sees O'Mahony carry the can

Pressure on Warburton to find form and repay Gatland's trust in his ability to save the tour

Peter O’Mahony is substituted during the Lions defeat to New Zealand last weekend. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony is substituted during the Lions defeat to New Zealand last weekend. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Lightning quick ball (LQB) is the key metric by which the All Blacks gauge success. It represents ball produced in three seconds or less at ruck-time and experience tells them that if they achieve between 45-50pc of LQB across a Test match they expect to win.

Against the Lions last Saturday at Eden Park, they achieved LQB at more than 60pc of breakdowns and that statistic alone is the key factor behind Warren Gatland's decision to make two changes to his pack for Saturday's potential decider.

Not long after the full-time whistle in Auckland there was already a sense that Peter O'Mahony would carry the can for his side's failure to front up in the game of their lives.

He was by no means the worst culprit, but when the skipper is one of the first men withdrawn, the writing is on the wall. On Sunday, when Gatland never mentioned O'Mahony but talked up Sam Warburton's contribution off the bench, the fate of the Corkman was already sealed.

In Wellington, Warburton's task will be to shut down the quick supply of ball available to Aaron Smith.

Although the combination of O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau had looked well-balanced in the warm-up games, they couldn't lay a glove on the world champions last weekend.

Jonathan Sexton. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Part of the reason for that was the Lions' failure to win collisions.

They lost the gainline so badly last week that it negated any chance they had to slow the ball down because their players had to go backwards before entering the ruck.

Where Warburton is tasked with slowing the ball, Maro Itoje is included to dominate the contact area and repel the All Black ball-carriers. The 22-year-old is a unique physical specimen and he'll be asked to set the tone.

George Kruis loses out having struggled badly last weekend and somehow Alun Wyn Jones survives. Warburton and Jones have Gatland's trust based on years of going to the well together for Wales and the Lions.

Neither man has shown form on this tour, but one of the two second-rows was always going to go again this week because of the coach's ludicrous decision not to use any of the so-called 'geography six' unless forced to on Tuesday.

Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes can feel justifiably aggrieved.

So far on tour, turnovers have been a premium in a country where out-and-out opensides are prized fighters.

Warburton is the best exponent of the 'jackal' poach technique in the British and Irish game, but he and Seán O'Brien have both struggled to get to grips with the brilliant clear-out technique employed by the New Zealand forwards. Although the tour captain was always likely to be restored with the series on the line, there was a case with replacing O'Mahony with his Munster colleague CJ Stander who must wonder what he has to do to merit Test inclusion.

If you want to win collisions, then Stander would have been a more sensible selection call, but Gatland is putting everything on denying his opponents that LQB they need to thrive.

The Lions' lineout could struggle as a result of the forward changes; Kruis and O'Mahony ran that part of the game well last weekend and have been the key to that supply of ball but their exclusion puts pressure on Itoje and Jones to step up.

If they can supply quick, clean ball for the combination of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell then the tourists have a chance. Last weekend, Farrell struggled in part because his team were unable to retain possession and were going backwards.

One of the few who actually got his side over the gainline was Ben Te'o, but the big New Zealand-born centre is excluded in favour of the more creative combination.


Sexton has grown into this tour and looked the more assured performer when he came into last week's Test, taking control and barking orders - even though he may have rubbed the referee up the wrong way.

His partnership with Conor Murray is tried and trusted and they know each other well, while he won't stand for the poor standards witnessed in Auckland and will be tasked with unlocking the talented outside backs.

To do so, they need their own LQB.

Gatland accused his forward pack of lacking pride in the opening Test and for the six men standing that is a big charge to answer.

As they prepare to front up to the physical battle, there is always a chance that the Lions could be duped into thinking New Zealand will play it the same way.

Last week, they negated Andy Farrell's line-speed by playing off Smith and coming around the corner.

This week they could just as easily go through Beauden Barrett at No 10, using the brilliant 26-year-old's range of kicking to bring the twin-danger-men Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane on the wings.

Steve Hansen's side have the capacity to adapt to what is put in front of them like no other team and having bludgeoned the Lions last weekend, it would be no surprise to see them loosen up this week and cause problems on the edge using Sonny Bill Williams as a foil and creating chances elsewhere.

The two enforced changes to Hansen's starting XV, plus the inclusion of the brilliant Ngani Laumape on the bench, have arguably strengthened the home side's repertoire. In Waisake Naholo, Laumape and Rieko Ioane they now have the three players who have caused the tourists the most issues in the Super Rugby clashes in their 23.

However, with rain forecast for New Zealand's windy city on Saturday, there is an opportunity if the tourists can get strong, competitive chasers in the air for Murray and Sexton's kicking.

With Israel Dagg forced inside to full-back, the aerial strength of the All Blacks' back three is diminished.

The series is on the line and the Lions are going for broke.

Gatland is a man under tremendous pressure from all angles and he has challenged his team to respond to an emasculating defeat last weekend.

It may be harsh on O'Mahony to lose his place and his captaincy, but such is the price of defeat.

By picking the out-of-form Warburton and Jones, the coach is going with what he knows.

He brought both men to New Zealand despite fitness doubts, and it is on them to produce something they never have before: a winning performance against the All Blacks,

Gatland is fully aware of the storm that's coming his way if they fail.

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