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Sunday 24 September 2017

It's time for the Lions to take a gamble

New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick holds down Alun Wyn Jones. SPORTSFILE
New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick holds down Alun Wyn Jones. SPORTSFILE

Warren Gatland's Lions were not as far off the mark in Auckland as the one-sided 30-15 scoreline suggests, but in my opinion the ex-All Black hooker may now have to look at making a few selection changes if he is going to salvage the test series next week in windy Wellington.

Gatland and his team know that All Blacks with more time together, and with the outstanding Beauden Barrett presumably restored to out-half after the Hurricanes ace had to move back to full-back in the second spell will get significantly better.

The Lions, who more than played their part in a thrilling end to end match, will still have to throw caution to the wind next Saturday and bring something new to the party.

In the end the difference was mainly in the clinical finishing and superior skill-set of the All Blacks where the angles of running and deft offloads from the likes of Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Sonny Bill Williams was superior to anything the Lions could offer.

When the Lions did get a chance to off-load they looked pretty good and started the better, Seán O'Brien's length of the field try, started by the Lions' best player, full-back Liam Williams, proved that the Lions could test the Blacks but just not often enough.

Having said that O'Brien's try was one of the better ones seen on Eden Park all year and indicates that if the Lions can just get more possession and take more risks then they are a serious threat.

At other times when the Lions did manage a half break or two, they lacked the support players to carry on the momentum.

Conversely, the All Blacks always had an arrow head of attack, with options on either side of the ball-carrier, they found gaps a lot more easily than the Lions could, despite a brave Lions scramble defence in trying to steam the Black flow.

After going down early in the match the Lions try swung some momentum back the visitors' way, but when the Lions needed to consolidate and score straight after half-time they fluffed it again.

Williams went agonisingly close but the Lions choose the wrong option from the ruck, opting to plug the short side rather than opt for space.

The Lions did retain the ball and still had a chance to score out wide, but rather than use the mismatch between the pace of centre Ben Te'o and flanker Jeremy Kaino the Lions centre foolishly chose to step inside rather than putting on the after burners and taking on Kaino on the outside, as a result Te'o slipped and the Lions had missed their chance.

The All Blacks scored soon after when big Auckland winger Reiko Loane, just 20-years young, blasted past Lions winger Elliot Daly and the game was effectively over as a real contest.

It was not all doom and gloom however, and the Lions showed plenty of spirt in an enthralling contest, they just lacked the finishing gloss you need against an All Black side that did not make too many mistakes.

Dominant

The Lions were not helped when some of the 50/50 refereeing decisions went the All Blacks way, but that is often the case when one team is dominant.

Some Lions players will come under scrutiny for next weekend's test, especially in the tight-five, where the Lions urgently need some more ball players.

One might expect the likes of Maro Itoje to start and possibly the abrasive Courtney Lawes as well. Lawes, so impressive against the Waikato Chiefs, deserves a look in. He is just the type of aggressive, in your face second-row that the All Blacks fear.

Gatland may also look at the composition of the Lions back-row, where the visitors lost the battle of the breakdown.

It was not good news for O'Brien to see his opposite No 7 Sam Cane awarded the Player of the Match award, but O'Brien, to his credit, was one of the Lions better players and will hold his position. But Sam Warburton may feature.

In the backs England's star Owen Farrell did not play particularly well, and Ireland's Johnny Sexton has a real opportunity to show what he can do if he is selected.

Farrell, like Conor Murray, was obviously instructed by Gatland to kick a lot, but the kicks were often too long and just gave the ball back to a side that had more to offer on the counter-attack.

All Black captain Read for a player that has been out of the game for most of this year, was inspirational, often cutting lines that the Lions found hard to contain, and he, like some of the other All Blacks, will get better with another game under the belt.

Steve Hansen will be concerned at the injuries to some of his star players especially Highlanders' Ben Smith who after three or four concussions of late must now be given a protracted period away from the game.

The atmosphere in Eden Park was electric as you might expect and to be honest the appreciation of the Lions supporters by the New Zealand public has been incredible.

Every Lions supporter on this tour has been saying that the Kiwis have gone out of their way to be both friendly and courteous.

They love their rugby in New Zealand and value what the Lions Series means to both the sport and the economy.

There is a lovely story in circulation about some Lions supporter who was invited to have tea by a woman who told them her sons would be back from training soon, imagine the delight of the Lions man when the sons were no less than the Loane brothers home from All Black training.

They all proceeded to have a cuppa and a chat, the brothers still sharing the same bedroom.

I am excited about the second test and the Lions will still feel that if they can tweak a few aspects, be more clinical and take a few more risks then they can win and bring the series to a crescendo in two weeks' time.

This week it's the Hurricanes and the selection for that side may indicate Garland's alternative plans for Saturday's test series deciders.

For me it's a shift of camp to Wellington. I can't wait.

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