Peter O’Mahony could lose Lions' captaincy for second Test
Maro Itoje is also likely to start the second Test against All Blacks next weekend
Ben Smith of the All Blacks is tackled by Lions duo Alun Wyn Jones and Owen Farrell during the first Test at Eden Park. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
The Lions are in do or die mode and Warren Gatland has made it clear they will “match fire with fire” in the collisions and at the breakdown as they seek to stay alive in the Test series in Wellington next Saturday.
To that end he has strongly intimated that Maro Itoje will come into the second row for either George Kruis or Alun Wyn Jones, and that Sam Warburton will come into the back row, quite possibly at the expense of Peter O’Mahony.
Having reviewed the game, the Lions head coach could scarcely conceal his disappointment at the way his players came off second best in much of the collisions during last Saturday’s 30-15 first Test defeat to the All Black in Eden Park, while just as notably he praised the contribution of Itoje and, less obviously to many people, Warburton.
Gatland also expressed his concerns about the targeting of Conor Murray, which he felt was sometimes illegal.
“It’s as simple as mentally getting things right,” said Gatland near the team’s latest base in Wellington yesterday. “You have to challenge the players mentally for that physical challenge and on Saturday that’s one area they got the better of us, I’ll be frank about that.
“We need to make sure that we’re a lot more physical in the contact area in both attack and defence. If we get that right the transfer from that area to other parts of the game will be huge. It’s not [a question of being]) mentally right, it’s just that they’ve been a bit more aggressive at the breakdown area.
“I’m not saying it was for the entire 80 minutes, there were times when we were excellent, times when the defence was good and times when we carried well. But overall they got the better of us in that area and we need to improve in that aspect.”
As a result, there will be changes, albeit that the majority of the team to pitch up next Saturday won’t be completely overhauled, as there’s not much to be gained by that.
“We might have to shake it up a little bit. I think someone like Maro Itoje made an impact coming off the bench and was very physical. I thought Sam Warburton was excellent as well at the breakdown when he came on.”
For tomorrow’s final midweek game against Super Rugby’s reigning champions, the Hurricanes, Rory Best will captain again in an unchanged pack. The only alterations from that side see George North and Jonathan Joseph given some game time, while Jack Nowell shifts to fullback (perhaps auditioning for a place in the match-day 23 off the bench). Jared Payne is on the bench.
“There are the guys on Tuesday night who get a real chance to make an impact in that area as well,” added Gatland. “Sometimes at the top level, it’s not about playing pretty rugby and we’ve seen the All Blacks be prepared to be pretty physical in the past. They were pretty brutal in that breakdown area and we need to match fire with fire if we’re going to do well on Saturday night.”
That said, Gatland said they also need to find the right balance in retaining players eager to restore wounded pride.
“If I was playing on Saturday night and I felt that I was physically dominated, I’d be a little bit disappointed in myself and I’d be doing everything I could physically the following week to make sure I fixed that area of the game. If I felt my pride was hurt a little bit, I’d be wanting to fix that. That’s what I’d be doing as a player.”
The message seems clear, although the Lions have only ever come from 1-0 down to win a Test series on two occasions in the past, in 1899 as well as 1989. Both were in Australia.