Why is it sometimes so bloody difficult – in fact on occasions impossible – to put away teams when they have a player sent off early on? And why do so few coaches resist the temptation to empty the bench when it gets close in the second half?
The short-handed issue first. It’s complicated. In recent memory we have seen Racing 92 win a Top 14 final after the early dismissal of Maxime Machenaud, Ireland win in South Africa after CJ Stander was sent off early doors and in Munster’s first game following the death of Tony Foley they hammered Glasgow despite the early loss of Keith Earls.
It’s very different from a yellow card when the side with a full complement have just ten minutes to make hay. Its eyeballs out for the duration of that yellow card, the game can be won there and then.
But when a side go down to 14 permanently early in the game it feels very different. There might be 60+ minutes for the team with fifteen to take advantage and perhaps a little bit of complacency creeps in. Meanwhile the short-handed team immediately raise their intensity. Suddenly, bizarrely, the momentum seems to be with the short-handed side.
That wasn’t quite the case yesterday but it wasn’t far off. At the precise moment New Zealand, with their backs to the wall, started raising their intensity and effort the Lions lost some of their mental sharpness and started leaking penalties.
My guess is that they suddenly realised they had just gone from outsiders to strong favourites. And that made them nervous and error prone. The Lions took time to adapt to that new level of expectation and the inquest that would ensue if they managed to lose against 14 All Blacks.
All credit therefore to Warren Gatland and his decision to trust in the evidence of his own eyes and possibly reverse what he had planned and stick with key players in key positions as the second half progressed.
There must have been huge pressure midway through the second half, at 18-9 down, to virtually empty the bench and bring fresh legs to bear and inject new energy into proceedings. Instead the only significant change was the swapping of Courtney Lawes for Alun Wyn Jones which was always going to happen whatever the circumstances and the decision to keep a fired up – perhaps over motivated– Mako Vunipola off once his ten minute yellow card ended.
Elsewhere though Gatland did the most difficult thing in sport. Nothing. Jamie George was having a stormer and, on the trickiest of nights for lineout throwers was locating his jumpers with relative ease. Despite the seemingly worldwide convention to replace hookers on the hour why would you do that given what a fine game he was having? There is no need to mend what isn’t broken.
Ditto Conor Murray. Rhys Webb has looked sharp during his few appearances on tour and certainly added a little bit of X-factor when he came on last week in the first Test and scored a try. His replacing Murray was a widely tipped tactical ploy but Gatland had seen Murray, freed of the orders to over-employ the box kick, beginning to hit his stride. And lo and behold, at a crucial time, Murray nipped in for a trademark try, his fourth in eight Tests against the All Blacks for Ireland and the Lions.
And as Murray’s game began to click, the effectiveness of the Jonny Sexton/Owen Farrell combo improved. When replacement Ngani Laumape starting making inroads attacking that
10-12 channel after halftime there was a strong argument for getting Ben Te’o off the bench for the Lions to meet fire with fire.
Except if you stayed cool and thought it through logically nothing had changed. That’s exactly what Sonny Bill Williams would have been doing anyway if he had stayed, a risk the Lions had already factored into their original selection. In a must-win game the advantages of the two twin playmakers was a risk they were willing to take.
At 18-9 down, in the desire to make something happen and to at least go down with all guns blazing, Gatland must have considered bringing on a big ball carrier like CJ Stander to blast a few holes in the tiring New Zealand defence. But again you could sense Taulupe Faletau was beginning to stir and big things might be just around the corner from the Lions No. 8. Indeed they were. How well did he take his try when the moment came?
All this was fantastic use of the bench in a reverse way, ie not using all the options available just because they were there. The fabled ‘finishers’ much loved in the modern game and particularly by Eddie Jones were, on this occasion, those who had started.
Maro Itoje played with as much ‘impact’ in the final quarter as a player who had just come on. Itoje is tireless, combative and hugely skilful and, when he sorts out that habit of giving away soft penalties, will be pretty much the perfect identikit 21st century Test forward. He will certainly be challenging Brodie Retallick as the world’s best second row.
So let’s just let the lessons of yesterday sink in when considering how to use the bench. Yes, in different circumstances it might be a different case.
It could be all change with 15 minutes to go at Eden Park this Saturday but at Wellington last night, when confronted with the option of sticking or twisting, Gatland chose to stick. It was the right call.
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