Impact off the bench sees CJ Stander oust Peter O’Mahony
Gatland leaves first Test captain out in Wellington, Henshaw and North out of tour
The first player Warren Gatland sought out in the Lions’ team hotel today before the match-day squad for the second Test was announced to the players and confirmed publicly was Peter O’Mahony. To go from captain in the first Test to being outside the 23 is quite a dramatic change for the Munster man, and Gatland felt compelled to explain his and the coaches’ decision.
Apparently it had been the closest call of all, so much so that it was the one selection deferred overnight. Having decided, from early in the week it seemed, that they wanted to reinstate their tour captain for this make-or-break second test at blindside flanker while retaining Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau in an effort to bring more physicality to the contact area and breakdown, the coaches reconvened in the morning to decide whether O’Mahony or his Munster teammate CJ Stander would cover the backrow from the bench.
Ultimately, they appear to have opted for Stander’s physicality, energy and hard carrying off the bench, thus sacrificing O’Mahony’s athleticism and lineout skills, amongst their other attributes.
“It was a tough call,” admitted Gatland. “We looked at that and felt it was an opportunity to bring in Sam and Maro (Itoje) who both made an impact off the bench last week. We need to get some pressure on the ball and that’s something Sam is excellent at doing and he has got some rugby under his belt now.
“We could have put Peter on the bench and we had a long discussion about that, but CJ Stander has had an outstanding Six Nations and was good the other night with his carries and his physicality, so the impact he is able to bring off the bench could be significant,” added Gatland, who said they also seriously considered a 6-2 split on the bench before deciding it was too much of a risk if they lost a back or two early on.
“Look, Peter has been very unlucky. He has done a great job for us in terms of the games he has been involved in and the captaincy. He’s unlucky enough that we can have got choices and can make changes and use different combinations.”
As well as reinstating Warburton and Itoje, Gatland believes the third change to the starting line-up, bringing in Johnny Sexton and shifting Owen Farrell across to inside centre with Ben Te’o dropping to the bench, will enhance the Lions’ attacking game.
“They haven’t started together but they have had quite a bit of time together. The combination against the Crusaders was good and they had a bit of time last week. It gives us two ball-players, two kicking options on the right foot at first and second receiver, with the left foot options with Jonathan Davies and Elliot Daly as well. We are happy with the mix.”
“One concern we have got is looking at the long-range weather forecast it doesn’t look good for Saturday night, so may have to change tactically the way we are going to play. We need to do a job defensively on Sonny Bill Williams too. He was pretty direct against us and got a couple of offloads away. It’s important we try and shut him down.”
As well as O’Mahony, Iain Henderson can feel a little unlucky at missing out given his increasingly impressive form over the last three midweek games, notably last Tuesday here against the Hurricanes, albeit it was tarnished with a yellow card.
When asked if that counted against the Ulster lock, Gatland said: “The yellow card was disappointing, and he would have been disappointed. I thought his carrying was outstanding and he has caused teams a lot of problems. I had a chat with him today and just said to keep your head up and that we had spoken a lot about him potentially being involved in the 23.
“Courtney Lawes has done a really good job and Iain has been causing teams a lot of problems with his carrying. He has got better from game to game. I said just because you are not involved this week it doesn’t mean you will potentially be excluded from the next Test.”
Meanwhile as expected, Robbie Henshaw’s Lions tour is over after it was confirmed that the Leinster and Irish centre suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the 18th minute of the tourists’ 31-all draw with the Hurricanes.
He will return home on Sunday, a day after the second test , and as will George North, after the Lions issued a release revealing that North suffered a torn hamstring near the end of the same match.
Gatland said: “It’s unfortunate with Robbie with that pectoral muscle which has put him out. He is heading back to Ireland and has an operation on Monday, and George with the (torn) hamstring.
“It’s unfortunate for him and his tour is over as well. We have been very lucky that we haven’t had too many injuries so far. It’s been unfortunate for those two players who have picked up injuries this week. They have been great for the squad on tour and we wish them both speedy recovery.”
Gatland was also informed that Hansen had moved to end the war of words between them earlier in the day, and then asked given how Hansen started it, what his reaction was.
“I think I have been pretty mild and tried to be complimentary of the All Blacks. Obviously they are the best team in the world. It’s been a great experience for us as a team. The hospitality in New Zealand has been unbelievable. The treatment we have had from the fans wherever we have been has been absolutely brilliant.
I don’t know if there is any hostility from this side. Hopefully we can have a good game and maybe enjoy a beer together afterwards.”