WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The great guessing game at Westpac Stadium.
That’s how All Blacks coach Steve Hansen billed Saturday night’s second Test against the British & Irish Lions in Wellington, after he confirmed Waisake Naholo and Anton Lienert-Brown as the only two changes to his starting side. There will also be a Test debut for Hurricanes powerhouse Ngani Laumape should he be introduced off the bench, the former NRL player destined to make an impact given his stellar form against the Lions on Tuesday.
But in what style the world champions go about their business is far less certain, with Hansen likening it to a “second-guessing” exchange after the All Blacks caught the tourists on the hop with their tactics in the first Test.
“A lot of what we do is based on what the opposition will do, in fact everything,” Hansen said Thursday. “In attack, it’s a principle I learned long time ago as a young player off my father, the opposition give you all the options from what they do on defence and that hasn’t changed.
New Zealand Rugby needs to get whatever contract they have got, throw some extra figures on the end of it, and sign up the immense second-rower up for the rest of his career. He is only going to get better.
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.
“So whatever team they pick is a small part of that; so how they use that team to defend and what type of defence they use will depend on what we do…and again we use the ABC’s: we can assume some things, believe nothing, and then when we get out there we’ll confirm it. And we’ve got to play what’s in front of us and play that well.”
Speaking before the Lions announced their team, Hansen did correctly predict a greater breakdown focus from the Lions with Sam Warburton named to partner Sean O’Brien in the back-row. Maro Itoje will start at lock while, in the backs, Jonny Sexton was given the nod at No.10 with Owen Farrell moving out to inside centre.
The Warburton-O’Brien combo is an intriguing selection decision given the Wallabies have used a similar double “fetcher” setup, in Michael Hooper and David Pocock, against the All Blacks with mixed success. But what does that do for the Lions’ game plan and where does that potentially offer up other opportunities for the All Blacks? For Hansen, that’s what Test rugby is all about.
“The big thing that they’ll look to change, I think, is the breakdown, they’ll want to be a lot more competitive in there.” he said. “They went in [to the first Test] with the mindset that we’ll only put one person in and have everybody else on their feet, so they can get their line speed. So that will force some thinking in their camp.
Sam Warburton David Rogers/Getty Images
“And this is why coaches love coaching, and players love playing because it’s cut and thrust; what are they going to do and what are we going to do in response or what are we going to change? They’re sitting there thinking, ‘will they do the same thing as last week?’ And I guess we’ll have to wait and see what we all do. But it’s about reacting to, and adapting to that, too, in the moment.”
Something else the All Blacks will have to adapt will be French referee Jerome Garces.
South African Jaco Peyper controlled the first Test in Auckland last week but Garces has his own idiosyncrasies and New Zealand will need to alter accordingly, lock Sam Whitelock said.
“I think however the ref goes out there and performs we’ve just got to make sure we adjust to it,” Whitelock said. “I’ve had some good learnings myself personally over the last couple of weeks, working out what’s going to be accepted and what’s not, and then make sure you’re on the right side of it from there. That’s something that I’ve learnt and hopefully everyone else is feeling the same.”
While there have been plenty of off-field distractions this week, the Conor Murray-Jerome Kaino incident and the New Zealand Herald’s depiction of Warren Gatland as a clown – something Hansen described as a little disappointing – all the signs point to another fine on-field contest on Saturday night.
Jerome Garces David Rogers/Getty Images
Had the Lions capitalised on their opportunities in Auckland a little better it might well have been them with a 1-0 series lead this week, while the All Blacks are acutely aware of the need to raise their performance, or risk, as Hansen put it, finishing “second”.
It all comes back to the tactical guessing game.
“He’s [Gatland] going to second guess what we do, so are we going to play off nine again,” Hansen said. “And then we have to second guess if we play off nine, is that going to shut that door? And if they shut the door what other door have they just opened because you can’t do everything…that’s the beautiful thing about our game, it’s all about space. And if you can find it then you’re in business.
“But first of all you’ve got to go forward; so there’s going to be a tremendous battle there first, isn’t there? They’ll be a little wounded from last time out and they’ll want to prove a point up there, so as I said to you right from the beginning, we have to be on-song ourselves if we’re going to win this game.”
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Tactical guessing game: How second Test will be won
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