The old adage goes that ‘you should never change a winning team’ but clearly this message has been lost on Warren Gatland, who has made five changes to his test XV ahead of the second test on Saturday. In the forwards, Mako Vunipola and Geoff Parling have replaced Alex Corbisiero and Paul O’Connell, both of whom are injured, and Tom Croft, who drops to the bench, has been replaced by Dan Lydiate. In the backs, Ben Youngs and the fit-again Tommy Bowe are preferred to Mike Phillips and Alex Cuthbert, with the winger dropping to the bench at the expense of Sean Maitland.
Vunipola was unlucky to miss out on a starting role in the first test after his imperious form in the warm-up games, but ultimately the decision to opt for Corbisiero, a more proficient scrummager, proved to be the right call. The question now is whether or not Gatland should have selected Ryan Grant, who takes his place on the bench, ahead of Vunipola, with the latter resuming his role as an impact sub. Admittedly, Vunipola’s scrummaging technique needs work, but you can be sure he will have spent considerable time with Graham Rowntree this week working on it, and his form means he is deserving of this opportunity. Whilst the Lions might not enjoy the same dominance at the scrum they had in the first half of the first test, parity should still be achieved, and the writing was on the wall with this selection when Grant played the majority of Tuesday’s game against the Melbourne Rebels, only being replaced late on by Tom Court.
Despite a few cries here and there for Richie Gray or Ian Evans, the Parling selection is perhaps the most obvious of the five. The Leicester Tiger has played superbly so far on tour and his ability at the lineout, not to mention his underrated carrying, has allowed Gatland to bring in Lydiate at blindside flanker, giving himself a balance in the back row that you feel he is happier with. Although Gatland is a big fan of Croft, as illustrated by his decision to keep Croft in the 23 at the expense of having a second row on the bench, you get the sense that he is more comfortable having a work horse at six, which should give captain Sam Warburton more opportunities to influence the breakdown. Croft’s ability to score tries from anywhere on the pitch and his reliability at the lineout do however keep him in the 23, and although he will be disappointed to not be in the XV after a strong performance in the first test, he could well be a game changer coming on at the 60 minute mark.
The Lions played well in the first test, but if there was player who had a game to forget, it was Phillips. The scrum half found himself exposed defensively by the excellent Will Genia, whilst offensively he was consistently stifled by Ben Mowen, who had a fine debut for Australia. A knock to the knee could account for Phillips being dropped out the squad completely, but chances are that Gatland would have already been considering Youngs for the starting role, with the Englishman having experience of terrorising Australian defences on their own soil. Phillips’ power had little effect on the Australian defence last week, and Gatland will be eager to see if Youngs’ pace can create more opportunities for the talented Lions back line.
The last change to the XV sees Bowe replace the try-scoring Cuthbert on the wing. This decision is harsh on Cuthbert, who had a good game on Saturday, scoring a superb try, but if Bowe had not suffered his hand injury earlier in the tour, it’s almost unthinkable that he and George North wouldn’t have started the first test. Cuthbert is a highly accomplished finisher, but Bowe runs some of the best lines in the Northern hemisphere, is always looking for the ball, and has superior defence to the Welshman, and deserves this opportunity for his play earlier on the tour, much in the same way Vunipola deserves his. Any fears that Bowe might be lacking match fitness or confidence following his injury have been eased slightly by the knowledge that Cuthbert will be on the bench, and available to replace Bowe if needs be.
There is clear logic behind all of Gatland’s selection choices, but the dropping of Croft and Cuthbert to bench does suggest Gatland wants to take a more cautious approach to the second test, shoring up his defence and the breakdown. Gatland knows this game is just as important, if not more so, than the first test, and he wants go out there, grind out a result, and secure a much needed series win for the Lions. If the Lions can make it 2-0 in Melbourne on Saturday, it will be interesting to see the team which Gatland picks for the final test, as although he will be desperate to record a whitewash, the Lions could well and truly be unleashed offensively, safe in the knowledge they have won the series.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)