herald

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Gatland must go against what he believes to have any hope

Sexton and Farrell together best chance of a Lions miracle

Warren Gatland oversees his players during Lions training at Beetham Park
Warren Gatland oversees his players during Lions training at Beetham Park
Robbie Henshaw during training at Beetham Park in Hamilton

It is almost time for Warren Gatland to make that one change to his philosophy that might give the British & Irish Lions their best chance to shock New Zealand.

The veteran coach can either stick to his long and tightly held coaching beliefs or he can twist.

It is either Owen Farrell at ten or 12 for the first Test, presuming the England international is fit to play from his thigh strain.

All other options will have a minimal effect on the outcome, like what two wings will be chosen from George North, Elliot Daly, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, whether Sam Warburton will come into the back row or whether it will be Alun Wyn Jones or Maro Itoje with George Kruis in the second row.

Will Gatland go for the creativity of Jonathan Sexton at out-half or the crunch of Ben Te'o at inside centre?

In fairness, the ex-Leinster centre has been powerful in breaking the line in The Land of the Long White Cloud.

Stumbling

However, he has been unable to make the link to the last man, a major stumbling block to unlocking defences.

There was that amateur-hour pass to Liam Willliams against Crusaders and the surge away from the support of Sean O'Brien against the Maori All Blacks last Saturday.

For all of Te'o's athleticism, footwork and offloading, his mastery of the simple art of distribution is not there.

The ball should beat the man every time.

It just has to be treated with the care and attention it deserves.

This is where Sexton and Farrell can take control of the attack and dovetail to pose problems as two playmakers.

They have shown in one 50-minute cameo against the Crusaders the natural understanding that none of the centre combinations have managed, so far.

The Lions will have to kick often and extremely well to win the tactical battle for position.

There is more than enough in their defence, working in tandem, for that not to be a point of weakness.

The main argument for Gatland to retain the threat from Farrell to Te'o is the alarming lack of convincing form from any of the wings on the tour.

A reason for employing Sexton and Farrell from the start is that they can release outside centre Jonathan Davies and the back three, whoever they might be.

The sad fact is the Lions have punctured their opposition for seven tries in five matches, just two of these coming from wings Watson and Tommy Seymour.

Then again, this is a contest between the best attack in the world and what Ian McGeechan believes is already the best defence in the world.

The Lions legend is certainly stretching the truth to breaking point there.

However, the tendency of Sexton and Farrell to make that Rugby League-type man and ball, upright tackle is tailor-made for dealing with Sonny Bill Williams.

The pre-tour guff about the Lions having to score 40 points and/or four tries to take out the All Blacks is out the window.

It will all boil down to using blinding line speed to close in on and suffocate a wondrous attack.

New Zealand averaged five tries and close to 43 points-per-match in t he Rugby Championship last season.

"Obviously it is the unstructured stuff that they are fantastic at," said Lions defence coach Andy Farrell.

"The offloads and turnover ball are part of that.

"We talk a lot about our tackle entry and how effective we can be individually.

"But, sometimes, it is the two-man hit - it is the job of the assistant tackler to make sure he is spot on as well.

"We have been working on that."

Working on a miracle.

DES BERRY'S BRITISH & IRISH LIONS (v New Zealand): L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, O Farrell, A Watson; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong, AW Jones, G Kruis, P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, T Faletau.

Replacements: R Best, J McGrath, K Sinckler, M Itoje, CJ Stander; R Webb, B Te'o, E Daly.

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