Itoje is the man

Eng­land player will be keen to make up for lost time as Li­ons face All Blacks in must-win sec­ond Test to­day.

The National - News - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - pradley@then­ More rugby union, s5

New Zealand can wrap up a se­ries win against the Bri­tish & Ir­ish Li­ons when the sides meet in the sec­ond Test in Welling­ton to­day. For the All Blacks, the Test is the latest in their search for per­fec­tion. For the tourists, it might be a case of at­tempt­ing to re­main rel­e­vant.

Ev­ery­thing to lose

Good luck, Li­ons. No pres­sure. There is just the en­tire fu­ture of the Li­ons con­cept rid­ing on this Test match. Or so they say, any­way.

Yes, it has al­ways been the case that the four-yearly Li­ons se­ries have been re­garded as en­dan­gered since the game went pro­fes­sional in the mid-1990s.

But now it re­ally does feel as though it is un­der gen­uine threat, at least of be­com­ing a pared-down, di­luted ver­sion of its cur­rent self.

English clubs think the strain on the as­sets they loan out for this win­dow is be­com­ing too great, and are push­ing for the trip to South Africa in 2021 to be cut from 10 to eight games, played over five weeks rather than six. A se­ries white­wash against the All Blacks will do lit­tle for the case for re­tain­ing the Li­ons in its cur­rent form.

So, again, no pres­sure.

War­ring War­ren

There is a fair bit rid­ing on it for the Li­ons coach, too. War­ren Gat­land ex­hib­ited a trait sel­dom seen from him be­fore this week: weak­ness.

The coach con­ceded that the hue and cry over his se­lec­tion of the “Ge­og­ra­phy Six” – play­ers re­cruited as in­jury cover based on prox­im­ity rather than merit – meant he was un­will­ing to field any of them for any sig­nif­i­cant time against the Hur­ri­canes on Tues­day.

As a re­sult, his best laid plans have un­rav­elled. Play­ers who might have earned a shot at the Test side, such as Iain Hen­der­son, were spent, af­ter play­ing most of the 80 min­utes.

All will be for­given, of course, if the Li­ons sal­vage the Test se­ries. That looks like a big “if” at present.

Mak­ing of Maro

There was much to talk about the Li­ons team se­lec­tion for the win-or-bust match in Welling­ton. Alun Wyn Jones re­tain­ing his place in the sec­ond row, de­spite a luke­warm first Test.

Peter O’Ma­hony los­ing the cap­taincy, and his place in the squad al­to­gether. Ben Te’o, one of the rev­e­la­tions of the tour, be­ing dropped for a com­bi­na­tion of Owen Far­rell and Johnny Sex­ton.

All of which has broadly dis­tracted from the fact Maro Itoje has made the start­ing XV.

Short­listed for World Player of the Year last sea­son, the Eng­land lock will be keen to make up for lost time against Brodie Re­tal­lick and Sam White­lock.

Wet Welling­ton

Pick­ing two ball-play­ers in Sex­ton and Far­rell next to each other, in­stead of the power of Te’o, has been taken by many to mean the Li­ons plan to play a more ex­pan­sive game.

It is likely to mean the ex­act op­po­site, though. Now the Li­ons will have three play­ers re­garded as among the world’s best tac­ti­cal kick­ers next to each other: Conor Mur­ray, Sex­ton and Far­rell.

Given the weather fore­casts for heavy rain, it seems certain the ball will be kicked more and run less than in the opener in Auck­land.

Con­cus­sion care

By most peo­ple’s reck­on­ing, Dane Coles is the world’s best hooker, while Ben Smith has a sim­i­lar claim in the full­back po­si­tion.

Handy additions, then, for any side, let alone one want­ing to win a se­ries as high pro­file as the Li­ons one, which only comes around once ev­ery 12 years for the host na­tion. Each have been re­moved from the reck­on­ing, how­ever, be­cause of con­cern over their wel­fare be­cause of con­cus­sion. All in­volved should be ap­plauded for their good sense.

“You’ve only got one brain,” Israel Dagg pointed out, af­ter tak­ing over Smith’s No 15 shirt fol­low­ing his head knock in the first Test.

David Rogers / Getty Im­ages

David Rogers / Getty Im­ages

The Bri­tish & Ir­ish Li­ons warm up dur­ing the cap­tain’s run at Porirua Park in Welling­ton, New Zealand, yes­ter­day. The sec­ond Test is to­day.

David Rogers / Getty Im­ages

Johnny Sex­ton, right, and Owen Far­rell.

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