Tuesday saw the Lions play their last midweek game of the tour against last year’s Super Rugby Champions, the Hurricanes. Despite the ‘Canes boasting a dangerous back line, it was the Lions who came out all guns blazing and led at half time 7-23. However in an exciting second half the ‘Canes started to get more control and they took full advantage of Iain Henderson’s yellow card to draw level at 31-31. Despite all attempts to snatch a late winner, the Lions were unable to do so, with Dan Biggar’s long drop goal attempt falling short.
For many of these Lions, this will have been their last rugby of the season, as only the 2nd and 3rd Tests against the All Blacks now remain. However after the Lions’ loss in the 1st Test some of these players may be hoping to have done enough to earn a call-up to the Test 23.
As we look back on one of the more exciting games of the tour, here are my thoughts on the latest match:
Devalue the shirt or devalue the player?
When Warren Gatland announced that 4 Welshmen and 2 Scots would be joining the tour midway through, there was widespread criticism from both pundits and fans. I was very much against the call-ups, mainly because I agreed with the sentiment that most of the players were only there because they were geographically close, not because they were the best players available. However I was surprised to see them barely used against the Chiefs last week and was angry to see the way they were used – or not as the case was – in this game.
Gatland has admitted in an interview that the backlash from calling up the ‘Geographic 6’ caused him to re-think his strategy and it was decided that they would only be used as replacements when absolutely necessary (HIAs, injuries etc.). This to me is absolutely ridiculous as he has pulled these players away from their national teams and then basically decided that they will not be used except as a last resort. Over the last 2 midweek games, we have seen the 6 players used for a grand total of approximately 15 minutes, with Alan Dell covering Joe Marler’s yellow card against the Chiefs and Finn Russell making a cameo while Dan Biggar underwent possibly the fastest HIA I have ever seen! In this game, Joe Marler appeared to carrying an injury in the second half, but was still kept on when Dell was ready and waiting on the bench. What makes it even worse is that judging by an interview with CJ Stander, the starting players were not even aware that the subs were only there for emergencies, which by the way they played the game does not surprise me.
Right from the start, the Lions played a very high-tempo game, with Dan Biggar taking his place kicks as quickly as he felt comfortable doing and also choosing to surprise the ‘Canes with a quick tap penalty on halfway after shaping for a kick to touch. The New Zealand commentary suggested that this would be to allow the players the maximum amount of time to show their abilities to the coaches ahead of the Tests, however I also feel that it possibly caught the ‘Canes out initially. However after the break, the Hurricanes started to get more comfortable and upped the tempo even further. Let’s not forget, the tourists have just completed a long season, whereas the ‘Canes are still in the middle of theirs so would likely be fresher. The Lions have also been playing 2 games a week for the past month, and even squad rotation can only help combat fatigue so much in those cases. As the game went on, Dan Biggar must have begun to feel like he had a target painted on him, as the ‘Canes took every opportunity to send Ngani Laumape crashing down the 10 channel and Biggar continually put his body on the line. To ask him to play 76 minutes under those circumstances and then try to kick a 40m+ drop goal with the final play of the game is madness. Pretty much the entire team were out on their feet and yet the substitutions were limited to Leigh Halfpenny (1st half for the injured Robbie Henshaw) and George Kruis (54th minute for Courtney Lawes). As if they weren’t fatigued enough they then had to deal with being a man down between the 65th and 75th minute. The Hurricanes ran them ragged in those 10 minutes, scoring 14 points. There is no way to know for certain, but I would have expected the Lions to hold on had they not been so fatigued.
Once the ‘Geographic 6’ were out there, they should have been used the same as any squad member. I may not have liked Gatland’s decision, but I would have respected him for sticking to his guns.
Earning another game
Though I don’t expect drastic changes to be made to the Test 23, I feel that there were a few places on the bench up for grabs if someone could put in a good enough performance against the ‘Canes, namely at second row and the 23 shirt.
Both Henderson and Courtney Lawes had strong games on Tuesday, with Henderson especially influential in the loose with a couple of strong runs and some deft hands to put George North over for his try. While his yellow card at such a crucial time proved decisive and may count against him, I feel that he was not helped by the actions of Jonathan Joseph, who for some unknown reason decided to lift Jordie Barrett’s second leg as Henderson was cleaning him out, meaning that he lost all balance. I don’t think Henderson will be involved on Saturday, however I would not be overly surprised if he makes it into the 23 for the final Test. The removal of Lawes so early in the second half suggests to me that he will play some role in the Test, which I feel is a good call as he will not allow the All Blacks to have their own way at contact to the same degree as they did in the last Test.
In my last prediction of the 23, I named Jonathan Joseph on the bench, but I felt that his performance against the Hurricanes was anonymous at best, if not poor. Too often he tried (and failed) to ship the ball on without controlling it, which brought an early end to some promising attacks. I also never got the sense that he brought much to the defence. Maybe I’m being harsh on the Bath centre, but the only moment where I remember him impressing was his kick through that almost put North over for a try. I had Joseph’s versatility (he could get away with covering the wing if needed) getting him the 23 shirt, however I feel that other versatile players proved themselves more worthy in this game.
Probably one of the most impressive players on the pitch for the tourists, I think Jack Nowell has really bounced back from the criticism he received early in the tour. While he didn’t get on the score sheet, there were a number of times that he was able to put the Lions on the front foot with a mini-break and his strength and elusiveness won the Lions a number of penalties for high tackles. He also stopped Julian Savea in his tracks with an impressive chop tackle on about the only chance he had to run with the ball in the first half. He is by no means the biggest of wingers, but the coaches were clearly happy with his ability to deal with Savea when they moved him onto the wing after Robbie Henshaw’s injury. With a set of skills that would allow him to play wing, centre or fullback, Nowell would be a great option for the last place on the bench, however I see him missing out this weekend to George North.
This was arguably North’s best game of the tour. we haven’t seen enough of George North using his strength to beat people in internationals recently but he did so against the ‘Canes. After a decent enough start on the wing, he was moved inside midway through the opening 40 to replace the injured Robbie Henshaw. While it stopped him getting a chance to show his abilities on the wing, it may have been a blessing in disguise for him. The way that New Zealand benefited from the removal on Ben Te’o at the weekend showed to me that Sexton and Farrell should only be covering the fly half position in the Tests unless there is an emergency as they were too lightweight to avoid being dominated in the contact by Sonny Bill Williams. This game against the Hurricanes will have been a timely reminder to Warren Gatland that, though he is predominantly a winger, North can fill in at centre if required, and would be a much more physical centre like Te’o when compared to Farrell. His selection could have become even more important with the announcement that Waisake Naholo will start for he All Blacks on the wing and Laumape will come onto the bench, as they are both very physical players.
In terms of my selections for the Test 23, I have gone with the idea that not many changes will be made from last week’s squad, just a few minor tweaks. While I would personally keep the back row as it was, Gatland’s comments earlier int he week have led me to believe that Warburton will be recalled to the starting lineup, but I would not be surprised to see either him or O’Mahony named at 6. Alun Wyn Jones drops out after what I feel has been a poor tour for the Welshman, so Itoje starts while Lawes and North are promoted from the midweek squad. This is nothing against Leigh Halfpenny, however I just don’t feel that he is versatile or physical enough for the Lions to put ont he bench this weekend.
- Mako Vunipola
- Jamie George
- Tadhg Furlong
- Maro Itoje
- George Kruis
- Sam Warburton
- Sean O’Brien
- Taulupe Faletau
- Conor Murray
- Owen Farrell
- Elliot Daly
- Ben Te’o
- Jonathan Davies
- Anthony Watson
- Liam Williams
- Ken Owens
- Jack McGrath
- Kyle Sinckler
- Courtney Lawes
- Peter O’Mahony
- Rhys Webb
- Johnny Sexton
- George North
What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Who would you select for the Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge