British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has given the strongest indication yet he will overhaul the forward pack found wanting in last week’s first Test loss to the All Blacks.
As he mulls options for the second Test in Wellington on Saturday, Gatland was full of praise for the performance of locks Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson in a 31-31 draw with the Hurricanes on Tuesday night.
Gatland was impressed with Henderson’s commitment, even though the Irishman cost the Lions dearly when his yellow card let the Hurricanes back into the match.
He also liked the look of Lawes, bringing him off in the 53rd minute, probably to keep him fresh for the Test.
“I thought (Lawes) played really well and Iain Henderson played exceptionally well also, in terms of carrying and getting behind,” Gatland said.
“Courtney Lawes was strong in the lineout and carried and defended particularly well.”
Lawes could offer a potent combination with fellow Englishman Maro Itoje, who is regarded as a certain starter after making an immediate impact when he came off the bench in the first Test.
Lawes said he was ready to match the physicality of the All Blacks, whose locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock were outstanding in the 30-15 Test series opener.
“I don’t think you get to this level without having a certain level of physicality. That is an area of my game that is up there I suppose,” he said.
“It’s a final this weekend. There’s no second chance for us and we need to front up.”
The British and Irish Lions play the final midweek game of their New Zealand tour on Tuesday when they face reigning Super Rugby champions the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at five talking points going into the game, and leading towards next Saturday’s second Test against New Zealand.
RIVAL COACHES’ COMMENTS PROVIDE LIVELY BACK-DROP
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen reacted angrily to Lions opposite number Warren Gatland’s demand that referees clamp down on New Zealand’s “dangerous” targeting of scrum-half Conor Murray by phoning a radio station to call him “desperate”. All Blacks boss Hansen called Radio Sport directly in a bizarre move to answer Gatland’s call for greater protection of scrum-half Murray. Gatland was frustrated by what he felt were deliberate tactics from the All Blacks, claiming they were diving “blindly” at Murray’s standing leg whenever he launched a box kick in Saturday’s 30-15 defeat to New Zealand. It is an issue likely to rumble on throughout this week.
A FINAL PUSH FOR SECOND TEST PLACES
Liam Williams and Elliot Daly set the tone last week, starring in an impressive victory over the Chiefs and then securing first Test starting places as a result. And their achievement should inspire Tuesday’s Lions team. Full-back Jack Nowell, wing George North and lock Courtney Lawes could be the players who make a statement to Lions head coach Warren Gatland this time round as the tourists look to end their midweek schedule with another victory and provide a squad boost ahead of the next All Blacks clash.
HURRICANES ARE CAPABLE OF GIVING THE LIONS THE HURRY-UP
The Lions have already lost two midweek fixtures on tour, being beaten by the Blues and Highlanders, and the Hurricanes are certainly capable of completing a hat-trick for New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams. Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea both start after being released from All Blacks duty, while 2015 World Cup star Nehe Milner-Skudder is another player ready to test the Lions’ defence. Wellington’s Westpac Stadium is sold out for the first of two visits by the Lions in five days, and the crowd could be in for a thrilling encounter.
LIONS FANS WILL HOPE FOR A BACKLASH
Not only did the Lions lose last weekend’s first Test, they also found themselves heavily outgunned in the physicality stakes by a rampant New Zealand pack. The All Blacks’ dominance undoubtedly left a physical and mental mark on the Lions, and Tuesday’s line-up under the leadership of Ireland captain Rory Best can set about redressing matters by making a statement against the Hurricanes. It might not be a Test match, but the Lions can still go some way towards stating a case before Test series rivalry is resumed.
WESTPAC STADIUM DOES NOT HOLD GREAT LIONS MEMORIES
The last time the Lions visited Wellington’s “Cake Tin,” as the stadium is nicknamed, they were baked to a cinder. It was the second Test against New Zealand 12 years ago, and the All Blacks were in rampant form, running out 48-18 winners. Fly-half Dan Carter scored 33 points, including two tries, while Tana Umaga, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Richie McCaw also touched down as the Lions were mauled beyond recognition. It gave New Zealand a series-clinching victory over the Clive Woodward-coached tourists.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Much to the chagrin of other sporting codes down under rugby league fans like to call their game “the greatest game of all”. Indeed, they even have a song about it. (Google it if you don’t believe me!)
But if rugby league is the “greatest game of all” – and I’m not saying it is – then many might say that Johnathan “JT” Thurston is the “greatest player of all.”
It’s a big call but the 34-year-old deserves all the plaudits he gets – and then some. He’s won everything there is to win in the game – multiple times: the Dally M Player of the Year (2005, 2007, 2014, 2015), World Golden Boot Award (2011, 2013, 2015), State of Origin all-time highest point scorer and State of Origin most consecutive matches: 36 (2005-2016) – a run broken when he missed the first match of this year’s series.
The greatest players make their team-mates play better simply by being on the field/court – Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi, Tom Brady – to name a few.
Thurston certainly fits into that bracket, although his bank account would be missing quite a few zeroes compared with the trio mentioned. Also due to league’s relatively low global profile, Thurston doesn’t enjoy the acclaim he should.
If you want an example of the Thurston effect look at this year’s State of Origin. He was absent from game one in Brisbane, breaking his long run of consecutive matches, and Queensland fell to their biggest ever home loss – savaged 28-4.
He returned, perhaps prematurely, for game two in Sydney and despite playing with one arm for much of the match, inspired the Maroons to a comeback 18-16 victory – including landing the winning conversion from near the touchline with the clock winding down.
It was a performance that was “Messi-like” – the comparison has been made before.
Rugby League World editor Joe Whitley once wrote: “He’s rugby league’s answer to Lionel Messi and we are lucky to be able to witness his brilliance.” As unlikely as it may sound there are similarities between the sportsmen. Like Messi, Thurston was once written off for being too small to make it in his chosen sport – though the Queenslander is a full four inches bigger than his round ball compatriot (1.79m to 1.70m).
Both are also virtually one club players, showing unusual loyalty in this era where players change clubs as often as they change luxury cars. Thurston had a few years at the Bulldogs in Sydney before linking up with the North Queensland Cowboys in 2005, taking them to their first ever premiership a decade later.
Messi began at Newell’s Old Boys in his native Argentina before joining Barca in 2001, where he has remained ever since – taking them to the apex of world football.
The way Thurston and Messi play is also similar with both players, like many of the best, seeming to have more time than others on the pitch and with the uncanny ability to take the right option and make the big play – just when it is needed most.
Thurston has been a huge part of the all-conquering Queensland team of the last decade – a side almost All Blacks like in their dominance of State of Origin.
So understandably there was considerable disappointment over the weekend when it was confirmed that JT would miss the final match of this year’s series as well as the upcoming rugby league World Cup – based in Australia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand from October to December.
Thurston is expected to play for his club next year but (at this stage) we won’t see him again in the maroon of Queensland or green and gold of Australia. Of course he may be tempted to pull on one or both jerseys again – as we’ve learnt watching professional sport over many years, “retired” is a flexible term.
For fans of his teams he will be greatly missed, while for fans of his opponents there will be a sigh of relief – as they will know the chances of their team winning have been greatly enhanced.