Off the back of a hugely entertaining first test in Auckland where New Zealand ran out convincing 30-15 winners, the Lions have it all to do in the second test in Wellington as they look to level the series up and take it back to Eden Park for a decider. With no room for error changes are likely to be made to freshen up the team, so here’s the side I think should go out to level the series in Wellington.
The trio of Vunipola, George and Furlong had their struggles in Auckland and may well be looking over their shoulders ahead of the second test. Mako Vunipola got through his usual amount of work in the loose with his ball-carrying and tackling so should keep his place ahead of Jack McGrath despite his struggles against Owen Franks in the scrum. At hooker, Jamie George may have executed his line-outs well but he struggled to impact the game in the loose and Ken Owens is an aggressive ball-carrier who Gatland may feel is needed from the start to up the intensity for the second test. However having struggled at the breakdown in Auckland, Rory Best may also come into the equation having put in another impressive performance as captain against the Hurricanes. At tighthead, Tadhg Furlong may have faded as the game wore on but his ability in the scrum and his work in the loose should once again give him the nod over Kyle Sinckler whose impact off the bench will be important.
Another area where the Lions struggled, Alun-Wyn Jones and George Kruis are unlikely to remain the lock partnership in Wellington with both players having had disappointing games last week. Having replaced Jones early in the second-half, Maro Itoje brought a greater intensity and energy to the second-row with his tackling and carrying as well as stealing a New Zealand line-out, so he should come in to start. Gatland may be tempted to stick with the Saracens combination of Itoje-Kruis but following a number of commanding displays in the midweek matches Courtney Lawes deserves a place in the team. The Northampton lock forward has been one of the Lions best performers on tour and was hugely influential once again against the Hurricanes where he made 10 carries, eight tackles and won two line-outs. Having come off second-best to the All Blacks forwards in Auckland, the athleticism of Itoje and Lawes could be crucial, whilst following a tour-de-force performance against the Hurricanes Iain Henderson has done his chances of sneaking into the test 23 no harm. The Irishman has struggled at times on the tour but was outstanding against the reigning Super Rugby champions winning two turnovers, making seven tackles and 13 carries as he consistently got over the gain-line. A deft pair of hands to set up George North’s try showed his impressive handling skills and his second-half yellow card shouldn’t detract from a wonderful all-round display. Gatland may be tempted to go with the experience of Jones or the lineout prowess of Kruis on the bench but is is hard to ignore the Ulsterman after such a fine performance.
The All Blacks trio of Kaino, Cane and Read were instrumental throughout the game last week and completely nullified the threat of the Lions back-row. Sam Cane in particular was outstanding at the breakdown and despite putting in a customary strong shift in defence with his tackling Peter O’Mahony may miss out for Wellington with tour captain Sam Warburton likely to come in to counter-act Cane’s threat at the breakdown. Sean O’Brien was another to have a quieter game than usual even though he showed good support running to finish off THAT try. Without much front-foot ball O’Brien failed to impose himself on the match with his powerful ball-carrying although he remains a key attacking weapon for Gatland’s side and playing alongside Warburton would free up more space for him to attack. Having been outshone by opposite number Kieran Read, Taulupe Faletau will be keen to make amends and despite his struggles in Auckland his star quality will be needed coming up against the talismanic Read. Looking to the replacements bench O’Mahony would bring a physical edge to defence as well as another line-out option, although Justin Tipuric’s skills in the loose and work at the breakdown could be needed if the game starts to open up in the final quarter. The Welshman has been outstanding in the midweek sides and has incredibly made 59 tackles and not missed one yet on tour. Having led the side and played so well on tour, O’Mahony’s omission from the squad would not be an easy decision but Tipuric has earned his chance to be in the squad.
The half-back pairing of Murray and Farrell may have struggled to influence proceedings in Auckland, but both players had to work with very little due to All Blacks domination up-front. Conor Murray’s box-kicking is mightily effective although Lions fans may want to see a greater edge and see him take the game to Aaron Smith in the same way he did in Chicago last year. Welshman Rhys Webb was a good option from the bench, bringing fresh energy and more pace around the fringes when needed although he should probably have come on earlier last week. At No.10 Farrell was shut down well by the New Zealand forwards but he remains the best option at fly-half. The Saracens fly-half will have been disappointed with his own performance last week but is not the type of character to shirk a challenge and expect him to put in an improved performance in Wellington. Off the bench in Auckland Jonny Sexton tried to get things moving in attack with little success and Dan Biggar has looked the part in the midweek games with his handling skills in particular impressing as well as his goal-kicking. Biggar would be deserving of a place in the test squad although the potential of a Sexton-Farrell partnership in midfield would give Gatland more variety in attack if needed late on.
No change here. Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies were arguably the most impressive performers from the first test, and look the part together in midfield. Te’o has been the find of the tour at 12 and is a player New Zealand respect, especially after his ding-dong battle with Sonny Bill Williams. It was noticeable that SBW became a lot more prominent for the All Blacks when Te’o was removed early in the second half and the Lions seemed to lose momentum following his departure. Alongside Te’o, Jonathan Davies produced his best display in a test jersey for a number of years, with his running game causing real problems for New Zealand. The Welshman made a number of clean breaks throughout the match and was integral in setting up Sean O’Brien’s try, and his kicking and defensive game is equally important to the Lions cause. A rock-solid partnership.
A back three that caused the All Blacks no end of problems in attack, Gatland would be a brave man to break up the trio of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly. All three had their moments last Saturday with Williams’ daring run out of his 22 for O’Brien’s score and Daly’s intelligent footwork seeing him fix his man brilliantly before giving the pass that eventually saw the Irishman score, whilst Watson’s slaloming run in the second-half had New Zealand defenders falling all over the place. There may have been faults in defence with Williams guilty of dropping the ball in the build-up to Ioane’s score and Daly switching off for Taylor’s try in the first-half, but the potential of this back three especially in attack is frightening. The fact that all three can cover full-back means they can dove-tail with each other if needed be as well something which may catch New Zealand unawares. On the bench last week Leigh Halfpenny is a solid and safe option especially if his goal-kicking is needed in a tight game, although he is unlikely to spark as much in attack as the likes of George North or Jack Nowell. Both North and Nowell enjoyed better games against the Hurricanes, but the sheer power of North in attack would give the Lions real impact off the bench.
My 2nd Test Squad
- Mako Vunipola 16. Jamie George
- Ken Owens 17. Jack McGrath
- Tadhg Furlong 18. Kyle Sinckler
- Maro Itoje 19. Iain Henderson
- Courtney Lawes 20. Justin Tipuric
- Sam Warburton 21. Rhys Webb
- Sean O’Brien 22. Jonny Sexton
- Taulupe Faletau 23. George North
- Conor Murray
- Owen Farrell
- Elliot Daly
- Ben Te’o
- Jonathan Davies
- Anthony Watson
- Liam Williams