From Warrenball to Worryball
OPINION: Forget the red nose, if the Lions get hammered in the second test Warren Gatland will be up on the wobbly bicycle with shoes as long as an alligator and a green wig bigger than the hedge in Waikanae. Gatland’s selection for the second test is a colossal gamble that contradicts almost his entire coaching career.
We are used to the Lions coach making big calls. When he left Brian O’Driscoll out of the third test three years ago, Gatland might as well have told the whole of Ireland that Oliver Cromwell was a good bloke. He similarly offended most of Scotland by excluding almost their entire team from his Lions squad this time around. Chat live with Mark Reason about the Lions tour from midday on Tuesdays and Fridays.
But the selection of both Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell at first and second five is a stunner. Gatland never plays a second playmaker at second five. He plays Warrenball. He plays a powerful basher like Ben Te’o or Jamie Roberts to get him over the gain-line. Gatland’s whole previous coaching mantra has depended on front-foot ball. You wonder if Gatland’s sudden change of heart is like a personal ad in the lonely hearts column sent out to New Zealand Rugby. Coach looking for home comforts and a soulmate. Love me, I’m not one-dimensional, I want to come home
Earlier in the tour we wondered whether Farrell was being considered as a second five, the position he plays under Eddie Jones for England. The question was met with humour. Farrell was on tour as a 10. Anything else just didn’t add up.
And whatever happens tomorrow this selection doesn’t add up. It’s not that it’s wrong. It’s that the timing is absolutely bizarre.
If this was the way that Gatland wanted to go, then surely he would have picked Sexton and Farrell together in the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians. He would have given the combination time to get to know each other. But that wasn’t part of Gatland’s grand plan.
Farrell and Sexton have played together before on this tour. They played 52 minutes against the Crusaders as a reaction to injury. And they played the final 24 minutes of the first test. But this selection looks as if Gatland wanted Sexton back in the team but was reluctant to drop Farrell because of the force of character he brings.
It looks like a compromise. It can’t be because Gatland is a better selector than that. So you can only assume that the Lions have shifted their gameplan. Gatland was very disappointed by the tactical failure of the midweek team to kick enough in the second half against the Hurricanes. He felt it cost them the game.
So now Gatland has a 9, 10, 12 and 13 who are all expert kickers. The Lions are going to run the forwards hard off both 9 and 10, but they are also going to attack an area they see as a potential weakness in the All Blacks back three. Just as Ireland did in Chicago, kick and chase looks like being a big part of the game.
It doesn’t mean that the Lions won’t still counter-attack if the space is there to run into. But it does look as though Ben Te’o may have been sacrificed for his failure to pass when the Lions had an overlap early in the second half of the first test. Gatland can be ruthless.
The other big call is to bring back Sam Warburton as captain. It was a huge mistake to appoint Peter O’Mahony as captain for the first test. I said then that he did not have enough experience of handling international referees and so it proved.
Jaco Peyper was so fed up with the Lions by the second half that he had a go at them for having six players all talking to him at once. It put the ref’s back up. The line calls had already all started flowing the All Blacks’ way.
It was all very, very predictable and it was a colossal blunder. Sam Warburton now comes in, after becoming the first tour captain since 1930 to miss the opening test. He is there partly to slow down the All Blacks possession but he is also there to talk to Jerome Garces, the man in charge of the second test.
If this selection looks slightly desperate, then that’s because it is. The Lions have to win. Gatland clearly thinks they have to change. He clearly thinks he has to change. The Lions are going to be very, very physical tomorrow. There will be collisions, carnage and cards.
It’s big top and circus. It’s Gatland’s last stand. If he fails he will be going home on a unicycle.
Johnny Sexton, left, will start for the Lions at first five-eighth in the second test as Warren Gatland fields two playmakers with Owen Farrell, right, moved out to No 12.