Is Gat­land look­ing to be right or be pop­u­lar?

Irish Examiner - Sport - - RUGBY - Ro­nan O’gara

The Welling­ton ‘Cake Tin’ is one of the world’s great grounds for run­ning rugby. It pos­sesses a fast sur­face and is the home pitch for Beauden Bar­rett which, de­pend­ing on your al­le­giance to­mor­row, in­creases the pos­si­bil­ity of a thrilling or fright­en­ing masterclass.

Be­hind most opin­ions on the Li­ons sec­ond test XV ap­pears to be op­ti­mism that War­ren Gat­land’s se­lec­tion can level the se­ries. Hon­estly, I don’t see that, but it is very in­ter­est­ing to look at the back divi­sion for the tourists and note the lack of size there. I see that as a very pos­i­tive devel­op­ment for the fu­ture of the game.

Fair enough, Conor Mur­ray is a rangy nine, but none of the rest of the backs are mon­sters. Is it the first time in his coach­ing ca­reer Gat­land has gone with­out a big 12? There is a lot of skill on of­fer to­mor­row which is ex­cit­ing and very im­por­tant be­cause the way the game has gone in the past few years, it’s all smash-it-up play­ers. Hope­fully what we should see is an em­pha­sis on brain power as op­posed to brawn.

Johnny Sex­ton and Owen Far­rell have re­ally good rugby nous, but they’ll still need the ball to con­trib­ute to the big pic­ture. They’ve had six days to prep their stuff and en­sure there are no com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­downs this time as there was in the fi­nal quar­ter in Auck­land. They have been the two key driv­ers in train­ing this week I’m sure, and if the Joe Sch­midt model is repli­cated at the high­est level, the walk-throughs should en­sure ev­ery­one’s on the same page come kick-off time to­mor­row.

For Sex­ton, start­ing this Test match is an op­por­tu­nity he has craved his whole ca­reer. The key ques­tion now is: will he goal-kick or will Gat­land keep the tee with Far­rell? These are im­por­tant de­ci­sions. As a player, in your mind, if the re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing the goal-kicker is taken from you, it sub­tracts big time from your self-as­sur­ance.

Joe Sch­midt has al­ways had Johnny’s back from a con­fi­dence per­spec­tive, and I wouldn’t be sur­prised if they’ve chat­ted this week. One of the ob­sta­cles for an out-half is the bal­ance be­tween your own game and the re­spon­si­bil­ity you owe to the team’s strate­gies. You worry about how other play­ers are per­form­ing, partly, of course, be­cause you look and feel bet­ter when the team is hum­ming.

How­ever, Far­rell and Sex­ton can­not get dis­tracted to the detri­ment of their own de­ci­sion-mak­ing. They must ac­cept too that in such an ar­ti­fi­cial en­vi­ron­ment, a Li­ons test team will not be as struc­tured as an in­ter­na­tional team. That mightn’t sound like the end of the world un­til the mo­ment you plan to go wide and the op­tions are not there.

Iwould never have put War­ren Gat­land down as a man who cared too much abut out­side opin­ion, but it’s an easy con­clu­sion to ar­rive at given some of his de­ci­sions in re­cent weeks. The Sam War­bur­ton se­lec­tion for to­mor­row is un­der­stand­able. The rea­son the Welsh flanker was se­lected as tour cap­tain was that Gat­land wanted him in the test team. But on some other de­ci­sions, it ap­pears there’s been a lit­tle bit of men­tal crum­bling on the part of Gat­land: he didn’t bring on the Geog­ra­phy Six subs against the ‘Canes be­cause of the pub­lic back­lash. He tried Ben Te’o last week, who had an ex­cel­lent game, but he’s not backed him this time be­cause the Sex­ton-far­rell combo is the one the cheap seats wanted, and per­haps War­ren doesn’t need to be lis­ten­ing to that af­ter the sec­ond test.

Also, it’s very un­war­ren­like not to go with a big in­side cen­tre in the mould of a Jamie Roberts but fair dues to him for go­ing for it with Far­rell and Sex­ton. Peo­ple should never for­get that Gat­land is the Welsh coach, and it’s very nor­mal for a na­tional coach to trust the play­ers he knows and has worked with. If he’d been work­ing with CJ Stander for as long as he has Taulupe Faletau, maybe the Mun­ster man would be start­ing to­mor­row. There’s com­fort for a coach in know­ing you can trust a par­tic­u­lar player.

I am re­ally pleased CJ has made it into the squad to­mor­row, even if he now looks a player grit­ting his teeth af­ter an in­cred­i­bly emo­tional and phys­i­cal sea­son. He needs a break but the type of guy he is, he will run on empty if he has to. He is more an­a­lysed than he has ever been, and that’s a com­pli­ment in it­self, but he is not get­ting away from the clutches for those one or two 40m line-breaks at the mo­ment.

I can only imag­ine how Iain Hen­der­son is think­ing af­ter an emo­tion­ally drain­ing week.

There looked like there were three of him on the pitch on Tues­day but he has to un­der­stand that to do what he did in the cleanout is a com­plete head-melter for the coaches, a mas­sive ‘X’ against his name. I can guar­an­tee you he would be in the squad to­mor­row only for that. I’d go fur­ther and guess that the Hen­der­son dis­cus­sion did not even take place specif­i­cally for that rea­son. Four­teen points ahead, in com­plete con­trol of a game, and then a mo­ment of in­dis­ci­pline. A com­plete men­tal opt-out. The pub­lic don’t un­der­stand how se­verely the game is ref­er­eed, all those ac­tions are com­pletely out­lawed, and it’s an im­me­di­ate yel­low card, or oc­ca­sion­ally worse. (I loved the way the New Zealand TMO was so alert and clever in the phrase­ol­ogy he used in rec­om­mend­ing Ro­man Poite had a sec­ond look at the in­ci­dent!).

From a Cork and Irish point of view, there is some angst over Peter O’ma­hony not be­ing in the 23, but I dis­cussed the in­cred­i­ble tim­ing that al­lowed him come from nowhere be­fore the fi­nal game of

“I also feel Rory Best is un­lucky not to be hook­ing to­mor­row

the Six Na­tions to lead­ing out the Li­ons last Satur­day.

The more per­ti­nent de­bate is the work Steve Borth­wick must have done this week to get his re­con­sti­tuted li­ne­out work­ing. From last week to this, the con­ti­nu­ity is al­most non-ex­is­tent. Ge­orge Kruis was call­ing it at Eden Park, O’ma­hony was win­ning most of the ball, but it’s back to the draw­ing board on that again. It’s an area Borth­wick ex­cels in but it’s hardly ideal go­ing up against the All Blacks in a sec­ond test.

The way the front row sit­u­a­tion has worked out, I also feel Rory Best is un­lucky not to be hook­ing to­mor­row. His ca­pac­ity in the ruck is fan­tas­tic, as is the abil­ity to slow down and poach some ball. I wouldn’t be sur­prised to see him start in to­mor­row week’s third test, but it could be too late at that stage.

The im­por­tance of Sonny Bill Wil­liams is worth re­stat­ing as well, given the All Black losses of Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty since last Satur­day. If they can keep Wil­liams on the pitch, it’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to see where the Li­ons can dom­i­nate to the ex­tent they need to over 80 min­utes. It’s al­ready been said many times, but for Kieran Read to pro­duce the in­di­vid­ual per­for­mance he did at Eden Park is in­cred­i­ble. Some of the stuff he was do­ing was as­ton­ish­ing un­til you re­mind your­self this is New Zealand and they op­er­ate on a dif­fer­ent tier to any­thing else in world rugby.

It’s not just the fact that their ca­pac­ity to play out of the tackle puts them in a league of their own, it’s the amount of times those dif­fi­cult off­loads are ex­e­cuted — al­most every time. That’s such a game-changer, such a dif­fer­ence in mo­men­tum for them against any and every op­po­si­tion.

It’s also a dif­fer­ent mind­set, and I don’t have it. How­ever, it’s some­thing I want to be all over in Rac­ing 92 pre-sea­son by in­ter­ro­gat­ing Dan Carter on it. Does it start at U6 level in New Zealand, is it only some­thing that is ramped up when they come into the All­black set-up? Ei­ther way, just wow.

Pic­ture: Brett Phibbs

A leisurely bike ses­sion in the gym in Welling­ton for New Zealand play­ers Aaron Smith, Beauden Bar­rett, Lima Sopoaga, Is­rael Dagg, and Anton Lienert-brown.

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