The first two Tests of the Lions tour of New Zealand have been decided by the team that asserted physical dominance, and the decider is unlikely to be any different.
While many have rushed to describe Steve Hansen’s back-line selection as bold and daring, it is in fact nothing of the sort. He has simply identified a clear way for his charges to impose themselves on the Lions. And clearly hopes to expose that ruthlessly.
Owen Farrell was exemplary with ball-in-hand last week. The range and variety of his passing at 12 were instrumental in creating both tries and his re-selection is an easy one. However, the regularity with which Ngani Laumape drove straight up his channel was noteworthy and worrying in equal measure. The Hurricanes centre is hardly the Super Rugby leading try-scorer this season for nothing, and his explosive pace and brute force overpowered Farrell on numerous occasions. Sexton has long been a target of opposition ball carriers and so the Lions’ 10-12 axis looks set for a pummelling, but not just from Laumape.
Julian Savea has been named to start also, and that should indicate how the All Blacks hope to play more than anything else. Currently a towering 6-foot-3 inches and a bulky 108kg, Savea poses very different problems to those asked by the positively sleight Rieko Ioane. When one adds the 6-foot-4 inch Jordie Barrett into the mix, one gains an appreciation for the sheer size of their new look back-line.
One could rush to point out that such a myriad of changes will likely struggle to gel together and such sentiment invariably has merit. It is, after all, Laumape’s first Test start and Jordie Barret’s second cap. All four of those named above however, Savea, Laumape and both Barretts, ply their trade on a weekly basis with the Hurricanes.
Understanding, nuance and chemistry are unlikely to be in short supply.
So what does the impending physical deluge mean for the Lions? Sexton and Farrell’s defensive partnership will clearly require augmentation should they hope to prevent the Hurricanes simply blowing through them all day. It is here that the back-row are likely to be needed, and where the devil in the All Black’s plan falls into place.
Their success in the first Test came about due to quick ruck ball, allowing Aaron Smith time and space to dictate the game. Sam Warburton and co managed to slow that ball down in Wellington but doing so will be much tougher if they themselves are the tacklers. As Beauden Barrett at 10 launches assault after assault Farrell’s way, one can’t help but feel that it will be Warburton and O’Brien invariably felling those All Blacks. And in making those hits, it becomes much more difficult for them to contest the ensuing breakdown.
Shorn of their back-row to contest and slow down ball as they did so effectively at Wellington, the All Blacks will hope to generate the type of quick ball they put to such devastating use in Auckland. Should they achieve that feat, then one would be understandably apprehensive as to the Lions ability to keep pace given the brooding intensity Hansen will have instilled in his charges in light of last week’s loss.
The Lions have displayed tremendous fortitude throughout this tour, the schedule of which was widely deemed kamikaze. In felling the All Blacks their reputation, along with that of their coach, has been greatly enhanced and as Sky Sports wasted little time in pointing out last week, immortality does beckon.
However, armed with their army of strike runners, and an out-half adept at launching them in Beauden Barrett, the All Blacks look set to inflict damage on the Lions that not even a team of their pedigree can withstand.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena