WELLINGTON: British & Irish Lions coach, Warren Gatland, is aware of the enormity of the challenge facing his side when they take on the All Blacks in their crucial second Test at Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday.
Gatland, though, is confident that his side can square the series, despite being 0-1 down.
The Lions put in a spirited display in the first half of the opening instalment on Saturday in Auckland, only to be completely out-muscled and worn down by a ruthlessly efficient pack allied to the slick, intuitive flair of the world’s best backline.
The Lions were down 30-8 near the end, before replacement scrumhalf Rhys Webb pounced to give the Lions a modicum of respectability, with 30-15 being the final score.
Gatland has made three personnel changes to his starting XV for the clash with the All Blacks on Saturday in the Westpac Stadium, with Tour captain & now-blindside flank Sam Warburton, flyhalf Jonathan Sexton and lock Maro Itoje all promoted to the starting fifteen.
The need for a more physical pack against New Zealand has been the major discussion point this week for players and coaches after their opening Test defeat at Eden Park.
Some Lions will question why the least impressive of the locks on Tour, veteran Alun Wyn Jones, was retained at George Kruis’ expense. Itoje and Kruis have formed the most formidable lock pairing in northern hemisphere rugby over the last two Six Nations seasons, while Courtney Lawes and young Ulsterman, Iain Henderson have played out of their skins as the Tests have come into focus over the last three weeks.
Nevertheless, Gatland is confident the side named on Thursday is ready to repair the damage done in Auckland.
“It is a big challenge for us, as coaches and players we know that the series is on the line,” he said.
“A lot of the players have spoken about it being the biggest match of their careers.
“We are all aware as coaches that it is a massive game. Winning on Saturday gets us to the Cup final; it’s a knockout game - lose this Saturday and the series is over. We are all pretty aware of that.
“All we can ask from the guys is to train well and have an attitude. In fairness to the All Blacks, they played exceptionally well against us, they were very direct with the way they played.
“We are aware of how physical they were and we have to match that physicality on Saturday night.
“I thought their tight five were excellent and it is a big challenge for us to match that and step up also.
Gatland has brought CJ Stander, Courtney Lawes and Jack Nowell onto the bench to add impact in the second half, while players like burgeoning tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler will be keen to get into the faces of the mighty foe, when they get their chance in the vital last quarter – or earlier.
“We are lucky enough that we have choices, we can make changes and use different combinations,” the coach added.
The tactical shift to move Owen Farrell to inside centre has garnered much of the coverage this week. Gatland is confident that it will give his side more attacking options and an improved kicking game, on what is expected to be a wet night in Wellington on Saturday.
The inclusion of Warburton could be crucial for the battle of the breakdown and Gatland is keen to see the Welshman in tandem with O’Brien.
“Sam has been brilliant, he knows he was a bit short of game time coming into the first Test,” he added.
“We need to be more effective at the breakdown, competing more. They got (momentum) with quick, quality ball, so we need to be better there.
“His is role to go out there, even though he is playing 6…he is as good as any player in world rugby in terms of being able to get on the ball, create turnovers, win penalties or to slow the ball down.
“He is well aware of his role and defensively making sure he gets off the line and wins those collisions.
“Hopefully that combination with Sean works well, because I think Sean has had an outstanding Tour to date and I think the balance of those two will be great.”