Gerry Thornley: Lions unchanged and recharged for decider
Wales' Liam Williams has been retained at fullback despite concern over leg injury
When a team has just become the first side in eight years and 46 games to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, the case of retaining the matchday squad en bloc was always liable to be stronger than any argument for change.
So it is that the Lions have named an unchanged starting Test XV for the first time since 1993 for the potentially momentous Test series decider at Eden Park this Saturday.
In contrast to the All Blacks themselves, this Lions selection is also a positive reflection on their physical well-being as well as the positive energy and confidence to be derived from last week’s 24-21 victory in Wellington.
Indeed, to declare a clean bill of health for not only this 23 but all bar five of the original 41-man squad is quite remarkable really. Liam Williams had pulled up before the end of training in Queenstown on Wednesday with a ‘tightness in his leg’ but has been declared fit.
Having arrived here notionally as a winger, not least in the mind of Warren Gatland, Williams has nailed down the ‘15’ jersey in the Test series and backed up the brilliance of his counter-attacking in the first Test with some key interventions for the Lions’ first try last week. Known for his aerial skills, in truth Williams hasn’t been at his best in that department.
One area of likely debate must have been regarding the loosehead position, where Mako Vunipola has been retained ahead of Jack McGrath again. Vunipola conceded four of the Lions’ 13 penalties last week and was more culpable than any player for the loss of discipline which, more than anything, almost cost them victory. Indeed, while the Lions played against 14 men for 55 minutes, thanks to Vunipola that numerical advantage was cancelled during his time in the sin bin.
Vunipola did not return either, with McGrath remaining on the pitch for the remainder of the game after temporarily replacing Seán O’Brien. To have promoted McGrath and dropped Vunipola to the bench would have sent out the strongest message yet about the management’s anger over the penalty count.
However, a striking feature of the tour to date has been the manner in which the nine frontrow forwards have been divided into three units. Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong came on together in the 50th minute of the tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians five long weeks ago, and have started four games in unison since – the wins over the Crusaders and the Maori, and the first two Tests.
By contrast McGrath, like Ken Owens, has started only one game, the first midweek defeat against the Blues, since when they have been on the bench for the games against the Crusaders, Highlanders, Maori and then both Tests. Kyle Sinckler joined them on the bench against the Maori, and has also remained there for the two Tests.
Hence, while McGrath has been very unfortunate, a clear pecking order has been established, and both Gatland and scrum coach Graham Rowntree clearly believe there is much merit in keeping frontrow units intact.
There had been some suggestions that Alun Wyn Jones ought to be replaced, but the Welsh lock brings a vast wealth of experience and, despite being only 31, he has now been an ever-present in matchday squads over the course of all three Tests in three Lions series in a row. He brings a huge energy as well, and no player did more to draw the lines in the sand across the gainline last week.
Four years ago, by comparison, Gatland made five changes to the Lions’ starting XV for the decisive third Test, most famously omitting Brian O’Driscoll when Jamie Roberts returned from injury and Gatland decided to restore him and revert Jonathan Davies to outside centre. Admittedly, Gatland’s hand was also forced by injury to some degree, notably when Sam Warburton was ruled out and so O’Brien was promoted, with Jones chosen as captain.
Gatland admitted he was pleased to be able to select the exact same matchday 23 that featured in the second Test.
“It is not very often on a Lions tour that you get to pick the same 23 for the following game,” he said.
“We felt we should reward the players for the result and the courage that they showed in coming from behind from 18-9 down, digging themselves out of a hole and then finishing strongly in that last 10 to 15 minutes.
“There are some players who are pretty disappointed not to be selected and I understand that.
“It is what you would expect from competitive top athletes, they back themselves.
“But we have stressed all along that this is not all about the 23 players but about everyone in the squad. They have all put their disappointment behind them and are helping the match day squad prepare the best they can for the Test match.
“We are all aware of how big this game is and we are expecting a backlash from the All Blacks.
“But the pleasing thing about the second Test is just how strong we were in the last 10 or 15 minutes, in terms of energy and enthusiasm so we still feel there is another level in us.”
Lions’ kicking coach Neil Jenkins defended the decision to give the squad time off since last Saturday’s win in Wellington, which was spent in the south island playground of Queenstown.
“We needed that – a blow-out to get the cobwebs off after the last few days. We haven’t trained since Saturday, since the game. But it’s important that the boys get these days off as well. They’ve been flat-out for seven weeks and obviously most of them have been flat-out for seven months as well.
“So it’s important to get a few days off, to switch off. They know what’s coming on Saturday. We were there four years ago and we were there eight years ago in South Africa, when we were 2-0 down. That third Test was huge for us because we had lost the last six Test matches on the bounce, so to win that last Test there was massive. It was like a decider for us because we needed to win that game, purely for the Lions’ perspective.
“No disrespect to Australia four years ago but this is definitely up on a different level again. So the boys needed time off and I think it will do them the world of good to rest up then go again, with training tomorrow, team run on Friday and then that humongous Test on Saturday.”
LIONS (v New Zealand, Third Test, Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday, 7.35pm; 8.35am Irish time): Liam Williams; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong; Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones; Sam Warburton (capt), Seán O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell.
NEW ZEALAND: Jordie Barrett; Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Julien Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks; Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock; Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt).
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa.