Warren Gatland has made the expected changes to his Lions team ahead of Saturday’s clash with New Zealand. He has chosen, however, to make a number of unexpected changes also. Jonathan Sexton, Maro Itoje and tour captain Sam Warburton all come into the starting 15 while Jack Nowell, Courtney Lawes and CJ. Stander are promoted to the bench. Peter O’Mahony, Leigh Halfpenny an George Kruis all drop out of the match day 23 as Gatland desperately tries to find the winning formula against Hansen’s All Blacks.
The most exciting change sees Jonathan Sexton in at outhalf while Owen Farrell switches across to the centres at the expense of Ben Te’o. The Sexton-Farrell axis was a hot topic in the build up to the tour and has shown glimpses of its potential in the warm up matches in which it was employed. Against the Crusaders the pair were magnificent for 50 minutes and Gatland will be hoping that they can free up some space for those outside of them. The potential for greatness is overwhelming as Gatland has two of the worlds best fly halves operating in the same midfield. Sexton will have a point to prove while having Farrell outside him gives the Lions a much greater chance at unlocking this All Blacks defense. In addition the half back pairing of Sexton and Conor Murray needs no introduction, as the pair have shone together for Ireland over recent seasons.
The replacement of Peter O’Mahony with out of form captain Sam Warburton may cause some controversy. This decision by Gatland is clearly made with the knowledge that Warburton offers greater dynamism and strength while he will also be key in slowing down the All Blacks attack. Warburton is excited by the chance to finally play alongside Irish powerhouse Sean O’Brien; “I played against Sean for eight years now, we were in two Lions’ squads together but I never started with him. I’ve came off the bench but I’ve never started with him and I’m really looking forward to that,”.
The introduction of the immense Maro Itoje is certainly a welcome one. Itoje is, to put it simply, a monster. His ball carrying ability and brute strenth will give the boost the Lions attacking options in the pack while his speed and size will be a huge asset in defense. “We saw Maro Itoje’s impact in the first Test and he will bring an edge and a physicality, as will Sam Warburton in terms of pressure on the ball,”(Gatland). The decision to keep faith with the out of sorts Alun Wyn Jones is a brave one. One must not forget, though, that Jones has captained winning Lions test sides before and has experience that may be needed over the course of a gruelling 80 minutes of rugby.
With regards to the changes on the bench, it is fair to say that all three are worthy inclusions. CJ. Stander for his ball carrying ability alone is a huge option to have. His man of the match award tally will also tell you that he is a man for the big occasion. Whether it be at openside, blindside or number 8, Stander will relish any opportunity to trundle through the New Zealand defense. Jack Nowell has bounced back from a dissapointing start to his tour with strong showings for the midweek side. His talent is well know on this side of the world and against tiring legs his attacking prowess would certainly inject some bite into the Lions back three. Courtney Lawes, also, is well deserved of this call up. He was immense for 53 minutes against the Hurricanes before being called ashore. Like Stander he offers huge ball carrying ability, while his prowess in the set piece will somewhat offset the absense of both Kruis and O’Mahony.
The likes of Liam Williams, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson will hope that the added creativity of having Farrell and Sexton both operating inside them will offer more chances to run at the All Blacks, which they did to great effect in small periods of last Saturdays test. Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau will have to be at their barnstorming best if the tourists are to break through an astute New Zealand defensive line. Both men have so much to offer in both attack and at the breakdown, they simply need to be on form to disrupt the world champions.
If there is one thing to be said of Warren Gatland it is that he is not afraid of controversy. He always makes his decisions in what he believes to be his teams best interests, regardless of the opinion of the media and others. He did it when he dropped Brian O’Driscoll from the match day squad in his final Lions test, to the outrage of an entire nation. That decision, like many others he has made, was vindicated, as the Lions emerged victorious in Australia. The attacking line-up Gatland has selected will be welcomed by fans as the Lions seek to bite back after their defeat last weekend. They will be looking to cut out the mistakes from the first test and will need to if they are to compete with the All Blacks. “There were lots of positives from the first Test but we were disappointed that we put ourselves in a position to put the All Blacks under pressure and to get back into the game and we let it slip.”(Gatland). If the Lions win on Saturday he will be hailed as a genius. If they do not, the reaction will inevitably be less positive.