WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Saturday will be the first time Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell start alongside each other on this tour, but Warren Gatland has backed them to click going forward and defensively nullify the threat posed by Sonny Bill Williams.
Ben Te’o did well cancelling out the danger posed by Williams in the opening Test last weekend, but Gatland has mixed up their midfield options for Saturday by pairing Sexton and Farrell alongside each other with Te’o dropping to the bench. For so long, Gatland has spoken of Farrell as an out-and-out fly-half, but given his experience of playing at 12 for England, the Lions coach has now gone with the two-playmaker system as they look to level the series.
Gatland spoke with quiet authority on Thursday, sidestepping any potential opportunities to throw a couple of verbal grenades into the mix ahead of their second clash with the All Blacks, and instead looked at what the Lions’ focus has been this week.
Sexton and Farrell will have key roles on Saturday if the Lions are to win the gainline battle, after losing out in the physicality stakes last week. Despite having played just 75 minutes together across two matches, they have been practising since they met in Dublin before flying to New Zealand.
“They haven’t started together but they have had quite a bit of time together,” Gatland said. “The combination against the Crusaders was good and they had a bit of time last week.
“It gives us two ball-players, two kicking options on the right foot at first and second receiver, with the left foot options with Jonathan Davies and Elliot Daly as well. We are happy with the mix.
“One concern we have got is looking at the long-range weather forecast it doesn’t look good for Saturday night, so we may have to change tactically the way we are going to play. We need to do a job defensively on Sonny Bill Williams too. He was pretty direct against us and got a couple of offloads away. It’s important we try and shut him down.
“We have to stop him being as effective as he was and we have been working pretty hard on that.”
Gatland has no concerns over the size of their backs, given they have lost the bulk of Te’o, and instead emphasised how this newlook combination gives them “a bit more of an attacking option”.
The Lions are also focused on turning the tide at the breakdown after they were second best in that area to the All Blacks last weekend. To negate that threat, they have called in Sam Warburton at blindside, with Peter O’Mahony, who captained the Lions last weekend against the All Blacks, slipping out of the matchday squad.
Gatland spoke frequently of the hard selection decisions they have had to make this week, and also mentioned how the coaches spoke at length about the forwards to backs split on the bench. In the end they went for a five-three split, and will use Te’o as an impact option.
“It has been tough call for him,” Gatland said. “Ben has done really well. He’s carried well for us and defended well. He will get some game-time off the bench.
“We have made a call based on the amount of opportunities we created. We did stress the All Blacks at times. They got pretty narrow, so that does open up some opportunities for us to attack them if we get the ball and that is why we have gone with the combinations we have.”
Gatland has challenged his players to “try and have an attitude” on Saturday and match the All Blacks’ physicality. Lose and the series is over with a game to spare, but win and suddenly everything is on the line in Auckland on July 8.
“It’s a big challenge for us as coaches and players,” Gatland said. “We know the series is on the line. The players have spoken about it being the biggest match of their careers. It’s not about me, it’s about the players and the team. We are all aware it is a massive game.”