Gatland looking to freshen up his Lions but maintain winning momentum

The second Test victors will feel they’ve earned another starting shot in Auckland.

Murray Kinsella reports from Queenstown

MONDAY WILL SEE the Lions take in some of the joys of Queenstown, a buzzing hive of backpackers, thrill-seekers and, now, touring rugby fans on the South Island, but Warren Gatland will have some serious thinking to do at some stage in the day.

His team achieved what many thought was beyond them on Saturday and levelled the Test series against the All Blacks.

Maro Itoje celebrates winning with fans Maro Itoje had a major influence in the second Test. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Such a momentous victory would normally see the players involved backed again a week later, but Gatland has a couple of important selection calls to make once again for the third Test.

It’s easy to forget that these Lions players are at the end of a very long season, with the majority of them carrying a niggle of some sort.

Even last week before the second Test, Gatland and his coaches had to ease up on the training load. Now, they must consider finding a balance between picking the freshest players and maintaining the momentum of the second Test win.

“We’ll look at it in the next few days and talk to the players,” said Gatland. “We freshened them up a bit this [second Test] week and made this week a little lighter. When we looked back on the tape of the first Test, our forwards were a bit heavy-legged.

“We did a double session on the Thursday [in the first Test week]. I don’t think it was just the double session – it was accumulation of three or four weeks of no days off, travel, the games, the trainings, walk-throughs, everything the coaches do, the meetings.”

The Lions had Sunday off after the second Test, travelling down to Queenstown, and will also have non-pitch-training days on Monday and Tuesday, although there will of course be some elements of preparation for the third Test.

The relief on Sunday was that Sean O’Brien was cleared after being cited, meaning that the in-form Ireland openside will be ready to resume in the back row along with captain Sam Warburton and number eight Taulupe Faletau.

It is very difficult seeing Gatland breaking that trio up after they had a major influence on the outcome in Wellington, but the second row provides a tougher conundrum.

Liam Williams and Taulupe Faletau celebrate winning Liam Williams and Taulupe Faletau. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Maro Itoje was immense and will keep his place and while Alun Wyn Jones brilliantly repaid Gatland’s faith in the second Test, Courtney Lawes was superb off the bench in the second half.

The Englishman hammered into tackles – Jones did that too, in fairness – and used his sharp footwork to make a trio of good carries too. His explosive physicality is attractive from the start, but Gatland seems likelier to back Jones’ starting experience again.

Mako Vunipola’s ill-disciplined performance in the second Test – he gave up four penalties and was sin binned – means he will be a little worried this week.

Jack McGrath was strong off the bench, even if he might have passed just before the Lions were pinged for obstruction down in the All Blacks’ 22, and he might even be the fresher loosehead at this stage.

Gatland is a big fan of Vunipola’s all-action skills, however, and could back the Saracens man to learn from his errors in the second Test.

The backline looks settled for the Lions and although Liam Williams had a couple of aerial errors in Wellington, the conditions certainly contributed to that.

The bench is one area where Gatland might look to tweak, with CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Justin Tipuric offering different skills as the replacement back row, while Iain Henderson could even feature if the Lions go for a 6/2 split, which they strongly considered for the second Test.

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While there are those important final calls to make in the coming days, Gatland is content with what his Lions have achieved so far in this series and though the All Blacks are sure to respond aggressively to defeat, he believes his men have a little more bite left too.

New Zealand v British and Irish Lions - Second Test - Westpac Stadium Gatland hasn't seen too much of the All Blacks' best attack. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

“The ironic thing is that this [All Blacks] team is the best team in the world and for two Test matches they really haven’t stressed us,” said Gatland.

“They have squeezed us, made us give away penalties, and that has been to our downfall, but we haven’t seen the expansive rugby that the All Blacks are known for and creating havoc.

“We’ve coped with that and if we can continue to cope with that and improve in other areas, then we are going to see, hopefully, a great Test match.

“Yes, we have poked the bear, but hopefully the wounded Lion from last week is still recovering as well.”

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Murray Kinsella

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