The Lions have put back the announcement of their team to play New Zealand in this Saturday’s second Test to tomorrow afternoon. The coaches have much to ponder, but there appear to be some clear pointers as to the composition of the starting XV and replacements to face the All Blacks in the do-or-die mission at the Westpac Stadium on Saturday.
The most obvious of these was Warren Gatland's expressed disappointment with the manner in which New Zealand bullied the Lions in the collisions and at the breakdown during the 30-15 defeat in Eden Park last Saturday. Aside from putting it up to the bulk of the Test team that will be retained for the second Test, he also extolled the impact off the bench last Saturday in the 30-15 defeat of Maro Itoje, which was indisputable, and, less obviously, Sam Warburton.
Itoje therefore looks sure to start next Saturday, and most probably Warburton too. Itoje added aggression to a wilting Lions’ defensive line, and Warburton was physical in the contact and breakdown area as well, besides which he is the tour captain.
Not too much should perhaps be read into George Kruis being named on the bench for the draw with the Hurricanes this week, for Alun Wyn Jones had fulfilled this role a week previously in the win over the Chiefs, and thus could hardly be asked to do so again. So Itoje will come in for either Kruis or Jones, one of whom looks like missing out on the 23 altogether.
On form, there is a strong argument for leaving both out, and starting Itoje with either Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson as his starting second-row partner and the other on the bench.
However, the other significant pointer came in the 54th minute of the Hurricanes game when Lawes, rather than Henderson, was called ashore and saved any further time on the pitch.
Whereas Jones had only appeared last week as an enforced temporary replacement, this was a tactical replacement, with Kruis asked to back up 80 minutes against the All Blacks with another 26 here and Lawes preserved from any further action.
This was despite Henderson having an almighty match, albeit for 70 minutes rather than 80, and Gatland’s comments about the Ulsterman’s costly yellow card indicate he will not figure next Saturday.
So it seems likely that Lawes is in the 23, whereas Henderson will miss out.
The other area in which the Lions' selection against the Hurricanes appeared to be a pointer towards Saturday was in the back three, given the choice of Jack Nowell at full-back. Having been largely vindicated in the surprising decision to play Liam Williams last weekend, with Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly on the wings, it would be a surprise if there were any changes to that starting back three.
More likely, Nowell was auditioning for the last berth on the replacements' bench. In the event, he reverted to the wing after the desperately unfortunate Robbie Henshaw departed in the 18th minute. Meantime, George North was shifted to outside centre, and offered more, while also scoring a try.
Most other combinations seem well ensconced. The frontrow of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong have been working en bloc so there seems little point in breaking them up now. There was one bad, match-turning scrum against a replenished All Blacks frontrow, but it looked a collective failing. Furlong was soon replaced, but certainly he'd had a big match until that point.
It's the same, of late, with the back-up frontrow on the bench, and indeed the midweek frontrow, which ironically contains two fine poachers in Rory Best, as he showed again against the Hurricanes, and Dan Cole. But of them, Best is infinitely the more industrious, and is a proven winning captain against the All Blacks, but will, most likely, again miss out, leaving Ken Owens to vie with Jamie George for the number two jersey.
As for Warburton's return, it's more likely to be at the expense of Peter O'Mahony than Sean O'Brien, who has been at his belligerent best and has looked fit. One hopes O'Mahony is at least on the bench, and given James Haskell, Justin Tipuric and CJ Stander went the full 80 against the Hurricanes, that much seems likely.
Another position which may be affected by green-tinted glasses is outhalf, which should be an area of debate among the coaches as well. Owen Farrell arrived out here as the in-form de facto first choice number 10, with Johnny Sexton at a low ebb following his performance in Leinster's semi-final defeat to the Scarlets.
His outing in the opener against the Provincial Barbarians was in keeping with a loss of form, but Sexton’s appearance off the bench against the Crusaders seemed to liberate him. He produced the best Lions’ outhalf display of the tour against the Maori, taking the ball flatter and attacking the gain line from the off, and mixing his game up. His only blemish off the bench last Saturday was a case of crossed wires with Farrell.
By contrast, Farrell has lost a little of his swagger, missing key kicks in each of his four outings to date. Purely on form, never mind his experience as the starting outhalf in all three starts four years ago, there are valid reasons for going with Sexton. Also recalling his performances against the All Blacks in Christchurch in 2012, at the Aviva Stadium in November 2014 and in Chicago last November, there’s a case for Sexton. But the coaches do have more information at their disposal than any of us.
Possible British & Irish Lions (v New Zealand, Saturday, 8.35am): Liam Williams (Wales); Anthony Watson (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Ben Te'o (England), Elliot Daly (England); Owen Farrell (England), Conor Murray (Ireland); Mako Vunipola (England), Jamie George (England), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland); Maro Itoje (England), George Kruis (England); Sam Warburton (Wales, capt), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Wales), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Peter O'Mahony (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Jack Nowell (England).