WELLINGTON – Lock Courtney Lawes will arguably be the player that British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland pays most attention to against the Hurricanes on Tuesday as he considers his side for the second Test against the All Blacks.
The 28-year-old Lawes has been unlucky on the tour, failing a concussion test during the 23-22 loss to the Highlanders, and then needing to be reassessed for another head knock against the Chiefs the following week.
However, his athletic and combative partnership with compatriot Maro Itoje against the Blues had been one of the highlights of the early tour, and the pair looked to be in contention for the Test locking roles.
The head injuries, however, reduced Lawes’ opportunities to impress Gatland, who selected George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones for the first Test last Saturday, which the All Blacks won 30-15.
The visitors, who had been expected to dominate the All Blacks upfront, however, were forced on to the back foot by a supremely physical home side, and Wyn Jones looked to be struggling to keep up with the pace of the match.
Itoje impressed with his energy off the bench at Eden Park and Gatland indicated that he could be elevated into a starting role in the second Test, while he would also look to inject more physicality, possibly sending a message to Lawes to get involved and impose himself.
“We might have to shake (selection) up a little bit,” said Gatland. “Someone like Maro Itoje made an impact coming off the bench and was very physical.
“The disappointing thing is we were dominated in the collisions in attack and defence. They were pretty aggressive at the breakdown, came hard and won the collisions.
“If I was playing... and I felt that I was physically dominated, I’d be a little bit disappointed in myself, and I’d be doing everything I could physically do the following week to make sure I fixed that area of the game.”
The Hurricanes will also be looking to boost their form ahead of the Super Rugby playoffs with an improved effort in the forwards, after they were shut down by the Chiefs and Crusaders in recent matches.
“The physicality level will be massive, because they are big boys,” Hurricanes captain Brad Shields told reporters on Monday.
“We have to be dominant in our line speed, and getting off the line and putting them under pressure. When we go well, then the team goes well, and we can set our backline alight.”
The Hurricanes backline has been boosted by the release of three players from the All Blacks squad – fullback Jordie Barrett, wing Julian Savea and centre Ngani Laumape.
Savea arguably has the most to prove after he was overlooked for the first Test, with Rieko Ioane grabbing two tries from the left wing, but assistant coach John Plumtree said he expected the entire team to perform on Tuesday.
“Every time this Hurricanes side runs out, I expect them to win,” said Plumtree, who coached the Wellington provincial side against the 2005 tourists.
“That Lions team is superb, and any international coach wouldn’t mind taking them into the Six Nations, so we know what a tough task it will be.
“We will need to play above ourselves to get a result.”