Warren Gatland faces a number of crunch decisions in the run up to his squad announcement for the Lions second test against the All Blacks later this week. Locks Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes both shone as the Lions held on for a draw in a thrilling encounter with the Hurricanes. Tommy Seymour also deserves plaudits for a performance which included a brace of tries. It is doubtful, however, that he will play any part in either of the remaining tests against the world champions. Rory Best was successful in slowing down the hurricanes attack, something which may put him in test contention as Gatland seeks to suppress a truly magnificent All Black attacking unit.
The general perception is that Maro Itoje is a nailed on starter for this weekends test, with either Henderson, Lawes, George Kruis or Alun Wyn Jones partnering him at lock. Lawes and Kruis represent those with the best chance, Lawes simply for his form and Kruis for his set piece prowess. The fact that Gatland removed Lawes on 53 minutes against the Hurricanes is telling, and points towards him playing some part in the match day squad. Henderson, who can also cover the back row, will find himself unlucky to not be included in the squad. The only thing that may count against him is the yellow card picked up in the closing stages of the Hurricanes game, which undoubtedly swung the game in favour of the super rugby outfit. It must also be noted , however, that Henderson was the driving force behind the Lions superiority up to that point.
A recurring topic over the course of the tour has been that Ireland set the template for beating the All Blacks in Chicago; physically out muscle them and outlast them in the fitness department. Many people are forgetting that the Irish scored 40 points that day. To beat the All Blacks a team simply must score highly, as no matter how astute their defense is, the All Blacks will score tries. That is what they do. The Lions did not come close to scoring 40 points last time out but there were promising performances from the back three, while Ben Te’o showed signs that he may be able to go toe to toe with Sonny Bill Williams in the centre. With the addition of some extra physicality in the pack, Gatland’s Lions may be able to cause greater disruption to the All Blacks at the breakdown, which in turn may lead to extra opportunities for the backs to stretch the New Zealander’s defense. It is doubtful that Gatland will opt to change the half back pairing of Farrell and Murray, as both can make game winning contributions at the drop of a hat. From an Irish perspective Johnny Sexton will likely feature and it will be exciting to see if the Sexton-Farrell link up can cause the All Blacks some heartache.
At present it seems as if Sam Warburton will start at the expense of last weeks captain peter O’Mahony. If this is true O’Mahony will be right to feel quite hard done by. The reason for picking Warburton is the same reason the aforementioned Rory Best may be in with a shout, he offers considerable strength and an ability to slow up ball at the breakdown. Personally I would love to see Gatland stay faithful to O’Mahony as no man will give more for the lions Jersey than him. The slots of both Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau are likely safe due to the fact that both offer such dynamism and power in both attack and defense.
Regardless of the calls Gatland makes as regards his squad and first team selection, these Lions will simply need to offer much more than they did last Saturday. To beat the All Blacks the Lions will need to outpace, outlast and out-muscle a New Zealand machine whose speciality it is to cut well drilled teams to shreds. It may seem as though the Lions have an insurmountable mountain to climb, but if they can hit the ground running and front up to the All Blacks the slope may turn out to be not so steep.