From the start coach Warren Gatland identified today’s match against the New Zealand Maori as an important milestone on the British and Irish Lions rugby tour.
The match in Rotorua marks the midpoint of the tour – the beginning of its tougher second half – and Gatland indicated it would be against the Maori that he fielded his top-strength line-up, a week before the first test against New Zealand.
Not all has gone to plan. Instead, injuries and considerations of fitness and form appear to have prevented Gatland from naming his Test XV and that might have an impact on the Lions’ readiness for the three-Test series which begins in Auckland on Saturday week.
Tour captain Sam Warburton has been picked on the bench as he struggles to regain full fitness and his best form after a recent knee injury. Flanker Peter O’Mahony has been handed the captaincy against the Maori in a form backrow which includes his Ireland team-mate Sean O’Brien at openside and Wales’ Taulupe Faletau at No 8.
Warburton now seems in danger of surrendering the captaincy and being named on the bench for the first Test; a possibility Gatland acknowledged at his team announcement when he reflected on the four games so far.
“Sam’s well aware of the competition that is there at the moment,” Gatland said. “He fully understands that that loose forward trio [O’Mahony, O’Brien and Faletau] went outstandingly well against the Crusaders. The challenge for them is to repeat it and if they do it again we’ll make what we think is the right selection for the Test match.”
Gatland said Warburton was a quality leader, “but this tour isn’t about Sam Warburton. It is about putting the squad first.”
The Lions had a second setback when England stand-off Owen Farrell was ruled out of today’s match with a leg injury. The grade one quadriceps strain, which might take ten days to heal, may also rule Farrell out of the first Test.
The loss of Farrell appears likely to have a serious impact on Gatland’s preferred Test line-up. In his absence, Johnny Sexton will start today’s clash against the Maori at No 10, however flanker O’Brien believes his Ireland team-mate can fill the void if Farrell fails to recover in time for the Auckland showdown with the All Blacks. Gatland says Sexton has regained his “mojo”, and O’Brien agrees the Leinster stand-off is edging back towards top form.
“Johnny was really sharp against the Crusaders and it was probably a difficult game to come into as well off the bench, but he was up to speed straight away,” said O’Brien of Sexton’s fine showing in the 12-3 Crusaders win.
“He did look sharp and he was crisp again, and bossing us around like Johnny does. You know he’s on it when he’s giving out to you a lot.
“You give Johnny a bit of a cuddle sometimes and he perks back up and gets his head back in the game.
“He’s a competitor, and someone who doesn’t like losing, and that can be tough. As someone said he probably puts pressure on himself at times, but I wouldn’t have him any other way. I’d rather him barking and yapping at us than not saying a word.
“You’ll get the normal Johnny against the Maori. Nothing changes for him. He’s one of these guys who’s a perfectionist, that’s how he’ll want it at the weekend. He’ll prepare as normal, he’s excited about what’s ahead too.”
The team Gatland has selected to face the Maori – who beat the Lions when the teams last met in 2005 – is close to Test strength but points to some uncertainty about the top team. “There’s a bit of juggling going on at the moment, a bit of mixing and matching,” Gatland said. “Even though it’s a strong side, we’ve got to make sure we’re not fully showing our hand.”
Gatland, a former New Zealand hooker, suggested the team was chosen with the intention of “keeping the All Blacks guessing”. But, after winning two and losing two of their first four matches, playing mind games is not a luxury the Lions can afford.
The Lions need to produce their best performance of the tour, because a loss would send them into the Test series with doubts over their combinations and gameplans.
The Lions are likely to try against the Maori to replicate the performance they produced in beating the Crusaders in their third tour match but that might also be a mistake.
They were justifiably proud to have beaten a team which has been unbeaten in 14 Super Rugby matches this season and to have held tryless a team averaging five tries per game. But the Lions also went tryless against the Crusaders and cannot expect to beat the All Blacks on the strength of their defence alone.
The Maori play a running game by tradition – one that will be guided by stand-off Damian McKenzie – and the Lions need to seize the opportunity to play in that spirit, not simply to neutralise their opponents through smothering defence.
O’Brien believes the tourists also need to cut out sloppy penalties in a bid to keep the referees on their side ahead of the Test series.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re controlling all the controllables,” said O’Brien.
“Ideally we don’t want the referee on our case too much this week, and have ideas in his head leading up to next week.
“That’s probably a natural thing for referees too. They might have a perception about certain areas of the game that they’ll be keeping a close eye on, and we want to make sure that we’re managing that as best as possible and not leaving it up to him to make a decision. We want to be tidy in all areas.”