Lions team rugby’s equivalent of going ‘all in’

2:38 AM BST

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The British & Irish Lions’ team for the second Test is rugby’s equivalent of going ‘all in’. The selection of Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell at 10 and 12 is Warren Gatland stacking his chips, throwing them into the middle of the table and then waiting. He has shown his hand.

The All Blacks have been waiting for this selection, but they may have been expecting to see Ben Te’o running in the outside centre channel given how well he shut down Sonny Bill Williams in the first Test. Instead, Gatland has gone against type; he has gone with the fleet-footed, corner-kicking, high-ball gathering options. Faced with the tree trunk of the All Blacks, the Lions will look to take the branches to get around them, rather than trying to splinter straight through the middle.

This is not so much a gamble in terms of class, as Sexton and Farrell are both wonderful players, but it is a great manifestation of this tour. From different sides of the Irish Sea, they are yet to start a game alongside each other in New Zealand and their match action is restricted to 51 minutes against the Crusaders and 24 in the first Test. The beauty of the Lions or the sheer impossibility of the task that Gatland has been battling since they set foot in this country?

Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell are the Lions a twin-playmaking threat. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

It aligns more with the latter category of the two. The dual playmaker role was clearly too irresistible for them to try, but it is surprising they have gone with this given Te’o has been one of the more consistently impressive backs on the tour and his physicality would have worried the All Blacks. Similarly, it looked like they were giving him time to develop an understanding with Jonathan Davies.

What we don’t know is how much time Sexton and Farrell have genuinely spent playing alongside each other in training, but it was a partnership that started before they journeyed to New Zealand. “We did a little bit in Carton House, where we weren’t put in the same team together but we were, I suppose, doing a drill where at times he was at second receiver and at times I was,” Sexton said after their win over the Maori All Blacks, a game Farrell missed through injury. “If you know the game like he does, if he plays 10 or 12, he’ll be a huge asset to any team. He’s a top-class player.”

The partnership means they can bring a two-sided attack, and equally have the ability to keep the All Blacks wingers pinned back in both corners. But they do lose some gainline ballast, and that will likely see the ball thrown wide more frequently than the All Blacks would have expected, with attacks through the middle likely to be through Gatland’s two-pod system or wingers searching for the ball from their position on the flank.

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This selection is a gamble from Gatland, but the two changes in the pack are both correct calls. The Lions lost the breakdown against the All Blacks in the first Test with Sam Cane magnificent. They had more stability when Sam Warburton came on for Peter O’Mahony, and this is now a more dynamic back-row. Warburton’s partnership with Sean O’Brien, and the leadership he brings, is a positive decision.

Maro Itoje has been improving game-on-game and with Gatland challenging his side to bring more physicality to Saturday, the England star will be the man searching for the big hits, trying to pilfer some ball, disrupting the lineout, and celebrating each penalty and turnover as if the Lions had won the series.

The Lions will lose a little in lineout nous, however, with George Kruis and O’Mahony their two lineout generals from the first Test. There was a school of thought that Courtney Lawes — who marries physicality with an ability to call a lineout — would have slotted in alongside Itoje, but Gatland was impressed with Alun Wyn Jones’ numbers from the first Test so the Welshman keeps his place.

Whatever happens on Saturday, the Lions will not die wondering. This is a bold, risky decision from Gatland. But, as with four years ago, he is not afraid of making the big decisions. It is win or bust on Saturday, and Gatland has gone all in.

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