Sunday 17 December 2017

Tony Ward: Sexton-Farrell call could prove a triumph for Gatland to rank alongside O’Driscoll axing

Owen Farrell talks to Jonathan Sexton (R) during a Lions training session. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Owen Farrell talks to Jonathan Sexton (R) during a Lions training session. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It doesn't take any insider knowledge to appreciate which camp in Wellington is in the better shape ahead of tomorrow's kick-off.

A confused-looking Lions selection, featuring three changes in personnel and one positional switch, takes on an All Blacks side showing but two alterations from Auckland, both enforced.

For the 23 Lions players involved, this is without doubt the biggest Test of their careers. This is the one that will determine their worth as Lions.

Lose and the next week in Auckland doesn't bear thinking about.

I feel for those not involved tomorrow because bar one or two exceptions (depending on injury) they are already excess baggage, and they know it.

Apart from a serious injury, I cannot think of anything worse in rugby (or any sport) than being left outside the match-day squad on tour.

Being out of the team is bad enough but not making the 23 leaves the flight home the thought uppermost on most minds as we enter the final phase. Of course they will make all the right soundings and at least attempt to do the right things, but to be surplus to requirements on a losing tour is the ultimate rugby nightmare.

Winning in Wellington is the only show in town. Despite last week's emphatic defeat, it is not mission impossible for the tourists but victory tomorrow would rank with the very best in Lions history.

Warren Gatland has named a 23 that confuses and delights. He is not afraid of change and that is admirable - provided of course the changes are made with a purpose.

The key to at least unsettling this All Black side is to stop them playing high-tempo front-foot rugby by slowing the breakdown through power and balance in engagement over the ball.

Based on last week's performance, the re-selection of Alun Wyn Jones is questionable; the management's finger of blame is clearly pointing at Peter O'Mahony and George Kruis, who have been left out of the 23.

I understand the rationale behind Maro Itoje's inclusion for Kruis but given the second-row dominance of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick at Eden Park, the case for Itoje alongside the even more abrasive Courtney Lawes was very strong.

Gatland could then have gone with Iain Henderson - who was awesome against the Hurricanes - to provide even greater impact off the bench.

Sam Warburton for O'Mahony is sacrificing that extra string to the lineout for ball-winning - or at least ball-slowing - potential at the breakdown and nothing to do with leadership. It is a difficult argument to counter.

Beyond that, the selection of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as effectively old-style New Zealand five-eighths surprises and looks a last throw of the dice.

Gatland's choice of Jonathan Davies at outside-centre ahead of Brian O'Driscoll came up trumps in the third Test in Australia four years ago, and if Sexton and Farrell click in a Lions win tomorrow, the selection will be a triumph for the coach. But it's a big risk.

The big advantage is the pair's ability to shift the ball with greater pace and accuracy to the back three - although that advantage depends on the weather. While the Lions need to be far more physical at the breakdown they don't want a war of attrition, or to have Sonny Bill Williams battering the Sexton/Farrell channel.

It is a selection fraught with danger, but the Lions have Ben Te'o in reserve to revert to the standard gainline-breaking 'square on' strategy if required.

The former Leinster centre has performed the Jamie Roberts role so loved by Gatland pretty much to perfection on this tour.

Demoting Te'o to the bench is a harsh call but one with potential merit, although I would feel more comfortable were assistant coach Andy Farrell - Owen's father - not a party to that selection process.

As for New Zealand, with Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty ruled out, they just substitute like with like.

Imagine being able to leave players of the quality of Jordie Barrett, Nehe Milner Skudder, Damian McKenzie and Julian Savea out of the match-day squad?

It is scary and underlines just why the All Blacks are so far ahead of the rest. It doesn't make them unbeatable but I repeat what I said before the Test series began: it would be difficult to pick a single Lions player ahead of his counterpart in black.

Even Conor Murray, who has been the epitome of consistency, trails Aaron Smith at this point in time.

One big game and one mighty win won't change that but it would provide some pause for thought going into a series decider.

If the Lions can lay down the early marker they intend - tempo and intensity at the breakdown allied to that trademark line-speed - then they have the bench to see out the 80, but again it's New Zealand for me.

Irish Independent

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