Auckland, New Zealand — Throughout this series, the main focus has surrounded Warren Gatland and his selections. However, for the first time this tour, the roles have been reversed. Steve Hansen has made 3 changes to his backline, bringing in Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea and Jordie Barrett.
Crotty – The key
Make no mistake about it, these are some big calls. Laumape and Barrett, just 24 and 20 years old respectively are set to make their first test starts. Hansen has called up two rookies to play in the biggest test match of recent times. Bold.
The key to Hansen’s decision making is that Ryan Crotty is clearly still injured. You may have read that Crotty is highly regarded by the Kiwis. That is exactly right. Reason being, he has the skill-set to play across the backline, can kick well and play as a second receiver. All of this takes significant pressure away from Beauden Barrett and allows him to focus more on creating game-changing moments. Crotty not being fit is excellent news for the Lions but Laumape and Barrett are both quality players that pose their own threats.
New kids on the block
Ngani Laumape is a tank going forwards. Against the Lions, he made 125 metres, four clean breaks and scored a try when playing for the Hurricanes. In the second test, he again showed what a force he is in attack. At 5ft 8 and 97kg he is a powerhouse and is joint top try scorer in Super Rugby. Sexton and Farrell need to be ready because he’s going to be hurtling down their channel all game. Expect to see Sean O’Brien stepping out of the lineout as cover, as he did when Sonny Bill was at 12.
The selection of Jordie Barrett at full back with Izzy Dagg moving to the wing is based on security. At 6ft 4, the youngest member of the Barrett family is solid under the high ball, powerful ball-in-hand and is most importantly an excellent goal kicker. There is a strong argument that Jordie should be starting kicker over his brother. He kicked 75 per cent of his goals for the Hurricanes this season, landing 30 kicks from 40, while older brother Beauden has shared the duties and landed 62 per cent of his goals – 18 from 29. The inclusion therefore allows Hansen to change kickers without bringing Aaron Cruden off the bench and changing up the backline.
Julian Savea is, well, Julian Savea. He’s probably in everyone’s World XV and has been incredibly unlucky not to start the first two tests. This is simply a straight swap for young Rieko Ioane. Not a bad replacement.
The Lions have named an unchanged starting XV for the first time since 1993.
Mako Vunipola retains his place after completely losing his head last week, Gatland remains loyal to Alun Wyn Jones (who I must admit played well in the second test) and the 10-12 partnership is again Sexton and Farrell.
There are two ways to look at this. Firstly, it is hard to change a winning team and the momentum is most certainly with the lions. Secondly, the bench is just so powerful. Usually, the All Blacks tend to run away from sides in the last 20, however in Wellington it was the Lions who finished stronger. Remember, the All Blacks were 18-9 up with 20 minutes to go. Players like Sinkler and Lawes came on and raised the intensity. Gatland will be wanting more of the same from his replacements.
For the Lions, it goes back to the old saying ‘the forwards decide who wins the game, the backs decide by how much’. Throughout the tour, their ill-discipline has just been killing them. However, the Lions players will be familiar with referee Romain Poite’s interpretation of the laws and they must keep the Frenchman on side this Saturday. If they can reduce their penalty count, dominate the set piece and win the battle at the breakdown then they are in with a shot. Murray, Sexton and Farrell are three of the best game management players in world rugby. Give these three a good platform and they will ensure the game is being played in the right areas of the pitch.
Biggest match in recent history
This game is as big as a World Cup Final.
The last time the All Blacks lost two games on the bounce at home was way back in 1998. They have not lost at Eden Park for 23 years. In Wellington, they played with 14 men for two thirds of the test and only just lost to a 77th minute penalty. Despite all this, the pressure seems to be on the All Blacks. There are have been no pictures in the papers portraying Warren Gatland as a clown this week. The Lions kept the Kiwis tryless for the first time since 2014 and the momentum of this series has swung.
The Lions have an opportunity to cause one of the greatest upsets in sporting history. Win it and they will have achieved something truly special. Just imagine if they actually do it…Sam bloody Warburton will be the greatest Lions captain of all time.
Word of advice – don’t go out on Friday, set your alarms and pray for another red card.
– Tom Gillen