It had been 12 long years since the British & Irish Lions were embarrassingly swept 3-0 on their last tour of New Zealand.
After a sputtering start in the first test at Eden Park, the Lions were down 1-0 with the 2017 series on the line. A trip to Wellington awaited, which was not an insignificant ground in Lions’ history.
It was the same turf where Dan Carter’s world-class performance had decimated the Lions in 2005, a 33-point haul that was defined as the passing of the torch from Jonny Wilkinson to Carter as the world’s best five-eighth.
The All Blacks ran riot on the back of two tries to the 23-year-old first five to win 48-18 and claim the series.
The home side had similar visions of repeating history with reigning World Player of the Year, Beauden Barrett, having claimed the title as the world’s best player in 2016. The All Blacks had not lost at home since 2009 to the Springboks, enjoying a 47-test unbeaten run.
With everything on the line, Gatland pushed all the chips into the pot to hand Jonathan Sexton the start at 10 in combination with Owen Farrell at 12 in a dual playmaking axis.
His move wasn’t well-received, with British fans and journalists alike criticizing the selections.
Playing Farrell & Sexton, at this stage, when they haven't tried that combination in earnest to me smacks of desperation #LionsNZ2017
— Chris Parrott (@cparrott07) June 29, 2017
Love to see @lionsofficial pull this out of the bag, but not sure about Sexton / Farrell. Sexton has to have a big game.
— ????????. (@jdhopkins) July 1, 2017
I think the Farrell Sexton combo could have really worked, but you have to plan for it not change last minute.
— TheWelshDragon ???????? (@TheWelshDragon9) July 1, 2017
— Rugby And Good Times (@rugby_goodtimes) June 29, 2017
Jack de Menezes of The Independent questioned the ‘panicked’ move, which might leave Gatland ‘licking his wounds’ after the reputational damage of a series defeat.
“Has Warren Gatland panicked? It’s a question that we will not know the answer to until around 10:30am on Saturday morning,” he wrote.
“By then, the British and Irish Lions series may be done and dusted too, and Gatland left licking his wounds with his reputation taking a major hit.”
Mick Cleary of The Telegraph wrote “this is a salvage mission” that will define Gatland. He claimed the ‘odds are against’ the Sexton-Farrell partnership but it would be a masterstroke if it works.
“The reputation of Gatland will be defined by it one way or the other.
“If it comes off – and the odds are against it – it will be a masterstroke to rank with the very best. If it fails, it will be seen as a desperate play to get something from a tour that has been buffeted by various trials and tribulations.”
While the British media saw the selections as a reputational gamble, New Zealand’s press also took aim at the selections, with Hamish Bidwell predicting for Stuff a kick-a-thon in the second test.
“Both Sexton and Farrell have been pedestrian on this trip and you assume neither will waste much time running and passing at Westpac Stadium. They’ll kick instead and hope the All Blacks’ rejigged back-three don’t have a great night with their catching.
Mark Reason of Stuff was over the top in his attacks on Gatland, claiming that the Lions coach would be made to look like a clown after his ‘colossal gamble’ would fail in the second test.
“Forget the red nose, if the Lions get hammered in the second test Warren Gatland will be up on the wobbly bicycle with shoes as long as an alligator and a green wig bigger than the hedge in Waikanae,” he wrote.
“Gatland’s selection for the second test is a colossal gamble that contradicts almost his entire coaching career. Gatland never plays a second playmaker at second five. He plays Warrenball.”
New Zealand Herald‘s Gregor Paul was more on the money with his assertion that the Lions would implement a wide attack.
“The decision to select both Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell is not unexpected, but is perhaps surprising that the Lions have waited until the second test to start with these two as a combination,” he wrote.
“With Sexton and Farrell in tandem, the Lions have two decisions-makers, two big kickers and two distributors. They are sacrificing the direct gainline running of Te’o to give themselves the opportunity to shift the ball wider.”
With twenty minutes remaining, the Lions kicked into gear with Sexton and Farrell pulling the strings to orchestrate two tries and comeback from 18-9 down to defeat the All Blacks 24-21 in one of the all-time great wins.
Final point on Lions tour. Gatland was ballsy in his choice of Sexton and Farrell for 2nd and 3rd tests. And he was right!
— David Walsh (@DavidWalshST) July 8, 2017
Can't believe Farrell & Sexton actually worked ??
— Owain Johns (@owain_johns) July 1, 2017
Sexton/Farrell combo started well. Holding defenders
— Tom Shanklin (@TomShanklin) July 1, 2017
Sexton Farrell what a selection ??????
— Jim (@JamesGorrie1) July 1, 2017
Itoje also making a mockery of his exclusion last week. Sexton/Farrell gamble came off on the whole. Murray excellent again
— Ruaridh Cameron (@ruaridhcameron) July 1, 2017
What a finish, farrell sexton combo was the game changer ?? #NZLvBIL
— Al (@alexmarsh99) July 1, 2017
After the series, Sean O’Brien told the Off The Ball podcast that the Lions should have won 3-0 and it was Sexton and Farrell who saved the series with their ownership of the attacking plans.
“I think we should have won. With the players we had, we should have won the series.
“If we had a little more structure during the weeks and more of an attack game plan driven [from] way earlier in the tour we could have won 3-0.”
“The coaches have a lot to answer for in terms of our attack. Johnny [Sexton] and Faz [Farrell] were the ones running our attack shape,” O’Brien added.
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