Johnny Sexton back in the saddle for crunch All Blacks Test
Peter O’Mahony makes way for Sam Warburton with Owen Farrell at inside centre
One-nil down and facing the point of no return against the back-to-back World Cup winners, the Lions’ head coach Warren Gatland and his assistants have decided to recall Johnny Sexton to the starting line-up for the second Test against New Zealand in Wellington this Saturday, with Owen Farrell shifting across to inside centre.
Less surprisingly, given this was flagged by Gatland in the aftermath of the 30-15 first test defeat in Eden Park last Saturday, Maro Itoje and tour captain Sam Warburton have been recalled to the pack, with George Kruis and Peter O’Mahony losing out. Like Kruis, O’Mahony, captain for the first Test, doesn’t even make the bench, where CJ Stander has been preferred.
Sexton’s former Leinster teammate Ben Te’o thus makes way from the team, despite some strong carrying and tackling in his four appearances to date, as Gatland and co opt to start Sexton and Farrell together for the first time.
The Sexton-Farrell 10-12 axis is quite a gamble, having been tried only sporadically in training, but having worked impressively for the last 50 minutes in the win over the Crusaders. It was employed again for the final quarter in the first Test, but now the two players will be used from the start.
Sexton arrived in New Zealand at a low ebb following his unusually below-par performance in Leinster’s Guinness Pro12 semi-final defeat at home to the Scarlets, and he began the tour with an unsure, undistinguished outing against the Provincial Barbarians.
There was no appreciable difference in his form against the Blues after replacing Dan Biggar in the 36th minute but, forced to play his third game in eight days as a replacement for Jonathan Davies in the 28th minute against the Crusaders, he seemed suddenly liberated.
He hadn’t such a heavy workload since his madcap early days with Racing following the Lions tour of four years ago, after which he scarcely had either a summer off or a pre-season. However, after being kept wrapped up in cotton wool following the Six Nations, after which he only played three games for Leinster, the increased game time seemed to spark him back to life. Sexton was ferociously competitive too.
In tandem with Farrell, the two operated fairly seamlessly, and starting in the 31-10 win over the New Zealand Maori in Rotorua a week later, Sexton gave the best outhalf performance of the tour. He attacked the gain line from the off, working particularly well in tandem with Tadhg Furlong, mixed up his kicking, running and passing game to better effect, and also put his body on the line again.
By contrast, Farrell hasn’t quite delivered upon the high expectations of him, and has missed one key kick at goal in each of his four appearances on tour against the Barbarians, Crusaders, Highlanders and, most crucially, last Saturday.
That said, the Sexton-Farrell axis were at crossed wires in the first Test when Sexton passed flat to Farrell and the latter did not even have his hands raised, clearly believing the pass was meant to go behind him. From the resulting turnover, Liam Williams failed to gather TJ Perenara’s box kick, and Reiko Ioane gathered to score the match-clinching try.
Well though Te’o played in the contact area against the All Blacks, notably when emptying Sonny Bill Williams only to be wrongly penalised for a tip tackle, his limited passing game places restrictions on his team. Indeed, of his 11 times in possession, Te’o ran the ball nine times and only passed twice.
This was most starkly evident early in the second-half when the Lions counter-attacked brilliantly again as they trailed 13-8, Te’o turned back inside, slipping before contact, rather than use the two-on-one overlap outside where he had Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau faced only by SBW.
The selection of Sexton and Farrell together should certainly give the Lions scope to put more width on the ball, and restores Farrell to the position where he was voted player of the tournament in the Six Nations. The caveat to that line of thinking is that the long-range forecast for Saturday’s second Test in windy Wellington is for it to be, well, not only very windy but very wet.
In other words it could be a night for plenty of the aerial stuff, and for trucking it up.
Despite that wobble with Perenara’s box kick and a sliced touchfinder off his left boot which was also something of a turning point, Williams has been understandably retained in an unchanged back three after doing more than any player to ignite the Lions in the first Test with his counter-attacking.
Similarly, the frontrow has also been retained, while Itoje comes in for Kruis rather than Jones, whom he replaced after 48 minutes in the first test. Yet Kruis had an unexceptional 80 minutes, missing three tackles and conceding two penalties.
Once Gatland and co were of a mind to recall Warburton, despite being captain last Saturday, O’Mahony always seemed like the backrower most vulnerable. Aside from finishing off ‘that’ try, O’Brien had another big game and was the pack’s most dynamic carrier. Toby Faletau had a comparatively low key game, although he had a huge game defensively, and is credited with making 21 tackles.
Stander’s bigger energy levels and harder carrying have been preferred to O’Mahony’s greater athleticism and line-out skills for impact off the bench. The frontrow replacements remain the same, while as expected Courtney Lawes has been chosen ahead of Iain Henderson, who is perhaps the unluckiest player to miss out. Rhys Webb is joined by Te’o and Jack Nowell as the back replacements.
British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England,) Jamie George (Saracens, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales, capt), Sean O’Brien (Leinster, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England), Courtney Lawes (Northampton, England), CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland), Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England), Jack Nowell (Exeter, England).