Warren Gatland is no stranger to criticism but in the lead up to this second Test he has received more negative press than ever before. The furore around the so called ‘Geography Six’ and a disappointing midweek performance against the Hurricanes dominated the headlines in the lead up to the second Test. His team selection was also openly questioned by many in the media as the pressure mounted on the Lions Head coach. Speaking after his team’s victory in the second test Gatland opened up about this criticism:
“The last couple of weeks, in terms of the criticism and personal attacks, have been tough to take, not so much for myself but family members. Whoever has been doing that would have no idea how much that has galvanised us. Ironically, it’s been a huge positive. Whoever’s doing that, please keep doing it because it’s not working and it’s probably been great for us. Even ex-All Blacks have contacted me to wish us good luck. I’m a happy clown this week.”
Gatland and his side responded in the best possible fashion with a result on the pitch. Listed below are five key decisions that Gatland made which were crucial to the Lions triumphing over the All Blacks:
1. Sexton and Farrell combination
Ben Te’o has been one of the standout performers of the tour and many thought that he was hard done by being dropped for the second Test. Te’o was imperious in defence in the first test and many commentators predicted that with him missing in defence Sonny Bill Williams and co would run riot. This did not prove the case and Gatland’s decision to mix up his backline was vindicated as Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell linked up well. Having two world class playmakers on the field ultimately proved to be the difference, as the two combined well to spread the ball wide for Taulupe Faletau’s try.
2. Calling up Maro Itoje
One of the few decisions Gatland made last week that was well received was calling Maro Itoje up to the starting lineup. The Saracens player may be the youngest Lion on the tour but played with a level of maturity beyond his young years. Itoje was admittedly at fault for a couple of penalties, as he crept offside, but was solid in the lineout and a constant nuisance to New Zealand in the loose. The Lions fans definitely did not begrudge him the penalties as the stadium was rocking with them showing their appreciation for the second row chanting his name throughout the match.
3. Loyalty to Alun Wyn Jones
Gatland’s most divisive selection was to keep the faith with his Wales stalwart Alun Wyn Jones. Jones has been far from his best this tour, but has always been a big game player, and made a mockery of suggestions that he should not have been included in the squad. Few people know Jones, and his game, better than Gatland, and the Kiwis faith in his lock was repaid handsomely as he put in a powerful display for 50 minutes.
4. Dropping O’Mahony for Warburton
Like Ben Te’o, Peter O’Mahony was dropped for reasons entirely separate to his play. O’Mahony enjoyed a 100% completion ratio in the lineout in the first Test, and put in a trademark quietly forceful all round performance. Where the Lions needed to improve was in the breakdown which is why Sam Warburton was recalled to the starting lineup. There is no better flanker in the northern hemisphere than Warburton at slowing down opponents ball, and Warburton’s performance was integral to the Lions pack’s efforts of slowing down the ball to put Aaron Smith under pressure.
5. Patient Substitutions
The progression of fresh legs onto the pitch at the hour mark is a standard sight these days, but Gatland resisted the urge to make wholesale changes to the side, as he patiently waited for his players to finish the job. One of the most common substitutions is the seemingly obligatory scrum half switch. The Lions head coach opted not to take off Conor Murray, and this decision proved vital as Murray scored in the 69th minute, nipping past the All Blacks scrum half replacement Perenara. It is highly unlikely that the starting scrum half Aaron Smith would have been caught out in this manner defensively, and this dramatic try can be seen as a vindication of Gatland’s decision to leave his starting fifteen out for as long as possible.