A resounding defeat in the opening Test against the All Blacks forced British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland to make changes, but the question would always be around whether he could mastermind a winning formula. Only Saturday will tell as New Zealand and the Lions lock horns again in Wellington, but there appear to be fundamental crack appearing already.
Peter O’Mahony, selected as captain for the series opener, is dropped from the 23-man squad and must feel the harshest done to after a near faultless outing last weekend. Tour captain Sam Warburton assumes his place in the back row as well as regaining the captaincy. Omitting such a talismanic leader as O’Mahony could amount to being a cataclysmic disaster.
Furthermore, England’s Ben Te’o ran some excellent lines and stood up well in a bruising battle with opposite number Sonny Bill Williams, yet his physical presence has been dropped to the bench as Owen Farrell dons the number 12 jersey, in order to accommodate an out-of-form Jonny Sexton, who has offer little on the periphery of the tour thus far.
You could argue the Farrell and Conor Murray axis pairing was one of the few glimmers of hope from last Saturday’s showdown, yet the dup are split, with Gatland insisting two kicking and play-making options adds a extra dynamic to the Lions’ backline.
You sense what Gatland is failing to realise is the fact his side were outmuscled and overpowered. Te’o is probably one of few Lions who have the stature to collide with an All Black and come off well, yet Farrell will now be exposed to the might of Williams, while Murray and an injury-prone Sexton will also be targeted heavily.
Meanwhile, up front, Alun Wyn Jones retains his place in the second row, despite bringing little to the party last week. Maro Itoje is rightly included, but fellow Englishmen Courtney Lawes, benched, and George Kruis miss out on starting berths.
An unchanged front row is a welcome sight as is the inclusion of CJ Stander among the replacements, but Gatland’s failure to empty his bench last time out is a concern.
Beating the All Blacks is a 23-man task and the New Zealand-born tactician will have to make some shrewd calls if he is to prevail, albeit he is needing a seismic implosion from the home side for that to happen.
We spoke with BoyleSports’ Leon Blanche ahead of the second test and he confirmed New Zealand have shortened in price.
“The Lions are a bigger price this week as you would expect, and New Zealand have shortened up,” he said.
“I have to admit some of the decisions are strange, I am happy with Sexton coming in – but some of the others are questionable, and I think that whilst New Zealand are going to be right up for this game. The Lions have to go for it.
“We have seen quite a lot of money for New Zealand at the plus 13 handicap but we have seen some patriotic money but that is just that, I hope I am wrong but everything is pointing to New Zealand.”
We also garnered the opinion of our rugby expert Stuart Watkins of Inside Rugby for his thoughts.
“You would like to think the changes would make a difference and make us play better, maybe they are going to throw the ball around a bit more and Sexton coming in will help the kicking game,” he said.
“However, I think ultimately it is hard to see past New Zealand – even with the different team.”
OUR PREDICTION: All Blacks by 25. Last week proved New Zealand have the measure of the British & Irish Lions and a side lacking attacking threat will struggle to keep pace in what could be a runaway victory.
British & Irish Lions: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliott Daly; Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Jamie George, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 6 Sam Warburton (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 8 Taulupe Faletau
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 CJ Stander, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane; 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith; 1 Joe Moody, 2 Codie Taylor, 3 Owen Franks, 4 Brodie Retallick, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 6 Jerome Kaino, 7 Sam Cane, 8 Kieran Read (c)
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Ngani Laumape