Warren Gatland set to roll selection dice for series decider

Changes in back three and backrow look to be on the cards after defeat in second Test

Wales fullback Liam Williams looks set to start the third Test against South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Wales fullback Liam Williams looks set to start the third Test against South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

In the fall-out from the Springboks’ second Test win to set up next Saturday’s series decider, it’s unlikely that Warren Gatland will be in quite the same rush to emulate Jacques Nienaber by revealing his team for the third test on Tuesday.

In addition to the potential for a number of citings, the wellbeing of players in both camps will need to be assessed. Bearing in mind the Lions’ difficulties in the scrum, with the Boks comprehensively having the upper hand after the teams turned to their respective benches, the tourists would no doubt like to have Wyn Jones back in the mix.

The Welsh loosehead was ruled out on the morning of the first Test, after being originally selected to start, with what was described as a minor shoulder injury, but was then ruled out of the second Test on the Monday of last week.

It says everything about the difficulties which the Lions’ back three had in varying ways, but particularly in the air, that almost the first name on the team sheet will be Liam Williams. With each passing minute and each dropped catch, Williams’s surprise omission from even the matchday 23 became more puzzling. Stuart Hogg had a particularly torrid day in the air, but Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson had their moments of difficulty too.

There’s an argument for rolling the dice with an all-new, all-Welsh back three of Louis Rees-Zammit, Williams and Josh Adams, although it probably won’t come to that.

“Look, sometimes games go like that,” said Warren Gatland after Saturday’s defeat. “We got nothing out of today and we did get a lot out of last week in that aerial stuff. We knew a lot of that was coming and we worked on it during the week. So sometimes that just happens.

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“Obviously Liam was disappointed and he’s one of those players who will come into contention as will others as well. Do we put that same team out and give them a chance to redeem themselves? Those are the conversations we’ll have over the next couple of days.”

One of the issues for Gatland and his assistant coaches is that 15 of their 40-man squad currently in Cape Town haven’t played in over two weeks at least.

“The non-23 did a great job this week in helping the players prepare and we’ll spend the next couple of days reviewing the game and then looking at what we think is the best 23 to put out,” said Gatland.

“Whether that’s some fresh faces that haven’t been involved in the first two Tests, we have got lots of options in terms of bringing guys in to give us some energy perhaps, or some momentum as well.”

Ronan O’Gara has called for Bundee Aki to get a run in the Lions midfield for the third Test. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ronan O’Gara has called for Bundee Aki to get a run in the Lions midfield for the third Test. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Outside centre has been a bit of a problem position but then again it mightn’t be if the Lions moved the ball there. One of the options here might be to promote Bundee Aki – that would certainly provide energy – or Owen Farrell and shift Robbie Henshaw to outside centre.

Ronan O’Gara, for one, would like to see both Farrell and Aki promoted. Yet Farrell hasn’t looked at his commanding best on this tour.

Although the same could be said of Taulupe Faletau, there’ll be another clamour for the Welsh player’s inclusion at number eight and change does seem likely in the backrow, if only because it is such an attritional area and the same trio have started both Tests.

While the in-form Tom Curry was manful in a losing cause, forgivably Courtney Lawes didn’t rescale the supreme heights of his second-half performance in the first Test and Tadhg Beirne’s form on tour merits more than the six and nine minute cameos he’s been restricted to so far.

Even if Gatland and co would be loath to break up the Alun Wyn Jones-Maro Itoje partnership which has now been in place for four successive Tests, there is an argument for emulating the Boks’ 6-2 split on the bench by promoting Iain Henderson at least to the matchday squad.

And, of course, Finn Russell is fit again after overcoming his Achilles injury and could be considered for an impact role. Not having played in three and a half weeks, now that would indeed be rolling the dice.

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