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