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Monday 25 September 2017

Gatland gamble can pay dividends in opener

Lions head coach Warren Gatland
Lions head coach Warren Gatland

Lions coach Warren Gatland took a huge gamble in taking a team from the four home unions to take on his old team the All Blacks on home soil.

In his first test selection Gatland has also gambled, experimenting on a number of combinations that he has not yet seen perform as a unit on this tour, most notably the back-three where it appears as if the Lions are going out in serious attack mode, no Warren-Ball in evidence, Gatland has publically stated "The Lions need to be bold."

An untried yet bold selection of Elliot Daly and Johnathan Joseph on the wings and Welsh winger Liam Williams at full-back is a huge risk but one that could prove decisive if the Lions can dominate upfront first.

Do the Lions have a chance of winning the first test? Absolutely.

Gatland wanted a tough "old style" lead-in to the business end of the tour, and for the ex-All Black this was all about winning the tests.

Gatland's plan was that it would give the Lions a chance to replicate test match intensity week-in and week-out. New Zealand on the other hand look a little undercooked at the moment with a lot of injuries in key areas or players like Kieran Read presumably lacking big-match time.

My concern for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is with only one pretty facile outing against Samoa last week, can his players suddenly adapt to test match rugby after a season of Super rugby? Super rugby is a game largely designed for television. It is a fast-paced, all-action, benefit-of-the-doubt game where the object is to score more tries than the opposition.

But as Gatland's team proved in Christchurch, and especially if the weather turns sour (as expected this weekend) then you don't have to always score tries to beat the All Blacks you just need to pressure them out of their comfort zones.

At the moment many of the New Zealand players are looking to play a fast-paced, off-loading type of game, but conditions and the Lions' rush defence may make that extremely difficult.

Gatland's selection of his tight-five, given the notable omission of the ball-playing English second row Mario Itoje for the more work-manlike abilities of Alun Wyn Jones to me it indicates that Gatland is going to take New Zealand on in the set-pieces, a wise move given the Lions scrum and lineout have proved to be more than competitive in New Zealand.

After that and with the selection of ball-chasers in the back-three, the Lions will want to play a tactical kicking game, then use some 'Warrenball' tactics in the crash-bash play of herculean centre Ben Te'o.

New Zealand on the other hand have picked a back three that contains two players that are especially good in the air, namely Otago's Ben Smith and Canterbury's Israel Dagg.

In my opinion Steve Hansen is obviously a little concerned about the aerial game, so often a huge part of Northern Hemisphere rugby, and therefore has selected Smith and Dagg to firstly take the 50-50 high balls and then counter-attack.

Approach

The All Blacks will also look to play the 2016 World Player of the Year and out-half Beauden Barrett very flat on the gainline and use the soft hands of Sonny Bill Williams in the centres to use the All Black support runners who always create an arrowhead of attack, with players either side of the ball-carrier.

It will be a battle of strategy and, like against the Maori All Blacks, the weather will play a huge part in the way each team approach this match.

The rush defence of the Lions will work a lot more effectively if the ball is wet, it will force the All Black backline to lie a lot deeper in attack, but if its dry underfoot, then you can expect the All Blacks to chip the ball in behind the Lions backline in an effort to create more space, aka the Highlanders. The All Blacks will also employ the long loopy cut-out passes to get play to the touchlines, such a part of Super rugby tactics this year.

From an Irish point of view, and with tour captain Sam Warburton ruled out, Gatland sensibly opted for international combinations, with the inclusion of Munster and Ireland No 6 Peter O'Mahony as new test captain.

O'Mahony forms a potent triumverate with the equally-impressive and in-form Seán O'Brien at number 7 and ball-playing No 8 Toby Faletau sandwiched in between the two, it gives the Lions the perfect balance for a back-row with power, lineout prowess and good footballing ability.

For a player that did not even think he may make it back onto the Irish team this season, O'Mahony has had a dream couple of months, captaining the Lions in New Zealand and, should they go onto win the game, will surely go down as the pinnacle of the Munster man's career.

I think this will be the Lions' best chance of a win as the All Blacks will only get better the more times they play together, but if conditions are wet and the Lions can be more clinical in finishing then this match could be closer than many would have thought.

- The selection of the Lions back-three with the Welsh supporters long saying that Liam Williams' best position is at full-back is a gamble worth taking. Gatland needs some counter-attack threat out wide. Williams has looked shaky in the air this series, and the All Blacks will test him early.

- To counter the Lions aerial game the All Blacks have included two players at home with ball in the air, Israel Dagg and Ben Smith are the best in the world at turning a loose kick into a 50-metre break. Owen Farrell must be pinpoint accurate if the Lions are going to go to the air from first phase ball.

- With Maro Itoje on the bench, Gatland is obviously looking to squeeze the All Black tight-five in the set piece game, then bring Itoje's fitness and footballing ability off the bench when he needs to change the game-plan.

- Owen Farrell will be asked to lead the defensive alignment and the Englishman is crucial in keeping his opposite Beauden Barrett deep and away from the gain line, he will also have to look after Sonny Bill Williams' angles of running as Steve Hansen will see the 10-12 channel as an area he will attack. Ben Te'o is a big strong man but does not have Williams' ability to offload through the tackle, Hansen wants his runners off Williams and the Lions must be ready.

- Keep the discipline, play the territory and dominate the tight-five and the Lions can win this first rubber, but I just have a feeling that at home in Eden Park the All Blacks will have another gear in the last 20 minutes as the Lions' long season will take its toll.

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