Monday 20 January 2020

Tony Ward: Hansen won’t be quaking in his boots but Lions look ready to make first Test a proper contest

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The purpose of the exercise in Hamilton yesterday was to accentuate the positive for the Lions and in almost every respect the midweek 'trackers' did just that -and did it forcibly. This wasn't just a win, it was a demolition job.

It's not often I feel sympathy for a New Zealand team, particularly on their home patch, but yesterday it was difficult not to feel for the Chiefs in their dilemma.

Of course we must credit the shadow Lions for this performance but in almost every aspect what we witnessed was a mismatch. Not quite men against boys but with the Waikato franchise short their internationals, this turned out the one-sided romp it always had the potential to be. The trick for Warren Gatland and his management team is keeping a sense of perspective.

For those who watch Super Rugby - of which I am a fully-signed-up follower - the Chiefs were unrecognisable from what we witness on a regular basis. Along with the Highlanders, the Hurricanes and the Crusaders, what they deliver almost every week is total rugby or as close as it gets to that playing aspiration. But in order to do that you've got to have a platform built on substance, specifically primary possession, and yesterday out of touch and at scrum time the home team weren't at the races.

There are many ways to go about winning in rugby but minus a scrum and short a lineout, it is virtually impossible. I expect the post-match analysis will be generous but measured in the Lions camp. In terms of morale and confidence heading now for Auckland, the vibe is good. Enough to beat the All Blacks I'm not so sure but what looks guaranteed is a hugely competitive Test series with both squads employing diametrically opposite tactical plans.

We will deal with the specifics in greater detail later in the week but put simply one team will be looking to squeeze the life out of the other when denying them space or time on the ball, while the other will be looking to offload or exploit territory every which way through turning the Lions around.

British and Irish Lions Jonathan Sexton. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
British and Irish Lions Jonathan Sexton. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

It should make for a fascinating contest and one in which the result - despite the Lions' obvious attacking limitations to date - is not a foregone conclusion.

Gatland has been right on the money when maintaining that the quality of Super Rugby and Maori opposition (yesterday apart) would carry the Lions to the type of 80-minute intensity required to make the Test series a much more level playing field when they run out in Eden Park for the opening rubber. Man for man and position for position, the reigning world champions (even without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw) are still better equipped but the collective, as we all know, can on occasion leave the individual components way behind.

Steve Hansen will not be quaking in his boots after yesterday but he knows what he is guaranteed is a Lions opposition that genuinely believes it can take the three-Test series. The opening Test will be critical in that regard but whatever else the manner of the Saturday victories over the Crusaders and Maoris guarantees a Lions squad that is ready.

And while it was only 13-6 at half-time in Hamilton, the writing was on the wall and crucially this time the Lions drove that early advantage home.

So many players put their hands up for inclusion but bar one or two possibilities on the bench and maybe in the second-row, at full-back or indeed the issue still of captaincy, the starting line-up for Saturday is already etched in Gatland's mind.

I question full-back on the basis of Owen Farrell being on board as out-half and goalkicker. If that is the case then the latitude exists to play Liam Williams (instead of Leigh Halfpenny) alongside Anthony Watson and George North in the back three.

It should be a straight call between Farrell and Johnny Sexton for out-half while the lock to partner George Kruis looks complicated. Whether it is Alun-Wyn Jones (also as captain), Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes or Iain Henderson, the world's two best lock combinations will be battling it out at Eden Park.

I am a Sam Warburton advocate and supported his choice as captain but, on form, he has not warranted selection ahead of Peter O'Mahony (as blindside and captain) or Seán O'Brien.

The real issue for Gatland, and the one central to that 80-minute full-court press required to suffocate the All Blacks' width, will be impact off the bench. This will be every bit as important as the full-back, out-half and back-five forward combination when the opening Test team is announced later today.

Based on form to date, either starting or coming on, plus potential impact, I would go with Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Sexton and Williams (or Elliot Daly, depending on whether Williams is in from the off).

There is too another alternative and that would be to have a six/two split on the bench instead of the standard five/three between forwards and backs.

Specialist half-backs (Webb and Sexton) would have to be included but instead of a utility back (allowing that the back three are interchangeable) it would provide even heavier artillery for the Lions to adopt the only logical plan of action in the circumstances.

It would be high risk but even with the standard five/three in reserve, there is enough evidence to suggest that the Lions are ready.

Irish Independent

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