New Zealand have been wounded, but it will take another loss for them to be truly defeated.
The Lions left Wellington on the back of a 24-21 victory against the All Blacks. However, if they are to continue their winning ways, minor adjustments must be made.
One single change can make a world of difference. Ben Smith was dearly missed from his side’s starting XV last weekend. Israel Dagg didn’t have a poor game but he dropped a ball and missed a tackle; Smith does neither.
The Highlanders star’s absence from the game, due to concussion, meant Waisake Naholo was promoted to the starting team. The winger is electric and exciting in Super Rugby but has yet to carry his exploits onto the Test arena and had an uneventful performance before having to leave the field for a HIA.
If one change in the back three can affect New Zealand then a change can do the same for the Lions.
Mako Vunipola’s composure and temperament failed him last weekend. His yellow card and the previous penalty were totally unnecessary and if you’re to beat New Zealand, mistakes such as Vunipola’s cannot be tolerated. His interactions with Jérôme Garcès for said penalties were careless and bordering on disrespectful too.
In order for the Lions to evolve and survive the New Zealand backlash, Jack McGrath must be introduced into the starting lineup.
Vunipola was undoubtedly the standout loosehead leading up to the first Test but the Lions’ scrum was under worrying pressure early on in Wellington. McGrath’s performances from the bench have been impressive and have improved the scrum’s stability.
It’s well known that French referee Romain Poite considers himself a scrum aficionado. Although Vunipola has improved his work in the tight immeasurably since his first tour down under, McGrath is far more capable come scrum time.
His technique and body positioning leaves far less elements open to interpretation and most importantly, open to penalties. The Leinsterman also possesses a silky pair of hands, which softens the blow of benching Vunipola.
Although the Saracens player has secured a starting role with England, with McGrath starting Vunipola’s explosiveness can be better utilised from the bench.
Word from New Zealand is that Gatland will keep faith in his starting loosehead but Vunipola’s discipline and McGrath’s solidity gives the Lions head coach a welcome predicament.
Starting McGrath would be an evolution for the Lions, not a revolution.
Billy Keenan, Pundit Arena