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Gatland’s gamble shifts focus from pack pressure

Warren Gatland’s big gamble appears to be to put more pressure on his team by trading individual power for creativity in the backline. But in the end, rugby is a simple game. Let’s check out the teams and make sure you post your thoughts in the comments below:

ALL BLACKS v LIONS, Second Test, who to keep an eye on.

All Blacks: I Dagg; W Naholo, A Lienert-Brown, S B Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith; J Moody, C Taylor, O Franks, B Retallick, S Whitelock, J Kaino, S Cane, K Read (c). Reserves: N Harris, W Crockett, C Faumuina, S Barrett, A Savea, TJ Perenara, A Crruden, N Laumape.

After Hansen’s first Test surprises, this team is as expected.

Crotty and Ben Smith are a big loss, with Smith in particular an issue for regular viewers who know I reckon he is critical in a complete ABs performance.

Dagg is a quality player but a definite rung below in my opinion, and he will also need to rely more on that cannon boot he has, with Ioane and Naholo on the wings.

Dagg has more ability to stuff up than Smith, and it’s another wet and slippery night ahead looking at the forecast. Those multiple dropped balls for the Crusaders will be remembered. He needs to fire.

First Test I would have picked Crotty/ALB as my centre combo, but with Crotty out I think this centre combo with SBW/ALB looks lethal. SBW is one of the game’s best offloaders and ALB last year showed he can run sublime support lines. ALB could feast off SBW offloads.

This is particularly important with Te’o out of the starting lineup and Sexton/Farell/Davies now defending those channels. The strong defensive presence of Te’o is not matched by Farrell at 12 and I’d expect the ABs to be planning plenty of inroads there.

Having Barrett spend the full game at No10 as well, and take the line on with pace, will further add to this challenge in the midfield.

No surprises up front and no change in what is expected from these guys. What will be interesting is how the French referee manages the ruck. If he takes a set against the robust All Blacks ruck management, they will have to adjust fast.

I’m tipping there’ll be a focus on Sam Cane requested from the ref by the Lions after game one. Let’s see if he gets pinged early.

Lions: L Williams; A Watson, J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton, C Murray; T Faletau, S O’Brien, S Warburton, AW Jones, M Itoje, T Furlong, J George, M Vunipola. Reserves: K Owens, J McGrath, K Sinckler, C Lawes, CJ Stander, R Webb, B Te’o, J Nowell.

Classic gamble here by Gatland as he looks for a different game than the one they took into the first Test that did not work.

In game one they relied too much on the hope of a counter attack (which paid off spectacularly once at least), in tandem with the baseline plan of rush defence, dominant ruck work, and great chasing of Murray’s pinpoint box kicks. Farrell never quite had the impact or influence Gatland would have wanted, even if what was expected was simply control of the space and territory with positional kicking.

But with this change it appears he’s embraced the philosophy a few have spouted in recent years, which is you have to focus on scoring more than the ABs, as opposed to complete focus on restricting their scoring (this is not to say ignoring one for the other, but it’s a balance). Attack, attack, attack to paraphrase Conor Murray after Ireland beat the ABs in Chicago.

Sexton at 10 and Farrell at 12 is where I thought he would start the Test series so I’m keen to see how it comes together, but Te’o played himself into undeniable consideration for the first Test, and is dropped while being the Lions best tourist for defenders beaten (14), clean breaks (9) and offloads (9). (These stats via @OptaJonny on twitter)

Clearly the missed opportunity to spread the ball and score in first Test has cost Te’o, and the bonus here is potentially bringing one of the Lions best in Davies into play more, along with a sharp back three.

But while the ABs will be looking at the midfield as an opportunity, really where it starts and finishes for the Lions is up front. They were beaten there last game and cannot afford to be done again.

Retaining Wynn-Jones instead of Kruis was an interesting call, as neither stood up in the first Test, and Kruis can at least be considered responsible for one area of dominance they had – the lineout.

It seems AWJ would have been an easier player to drop, but Gatland must believe he can get more out of the big man he deals with at national level.

Itoje is a superstar in the making and has brought more fire to the Lions than anyone, so he is an obvious injection, while Warburton at 6 will also be looking to be fired out of a cannon at kickoff.

Regulars will also know I’m a massive CJ Stander fan, so his presence late could prove very effective.

Overall, rugby is a simple game and the forwards battle is everything, particularly on a slippery deck. The Lions will live and die on the ball they provide and the meters they grind out. They need to take every chance they get as well.

My tip is still the All Blacks, probably by a similar margin, with a series securing win in the offing.

Your thoughts?