BRITISH LIONS veteran Phil Larder has welcomed Warren Gatland’s bold “English” approach to today’s crucial second Test – but still does not think it will be enough against opponents he rates better than the All Blacks he encountered in 2005.
There has been much debate about the head coach’s decision to deploy the double-playmaker tactic in Wellington with No 10 Owen Farrell switching to inside centre and Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton coming in at fly-half.
It means the destructive English No12 Ben Te’o – arguably the tourists’ best attacking player so far – is dropped to the bench in a game they must win after losing last Saturday’s opener 30-15 in Auckland.
There are fears, too, that, for all Farrell is a fine defender, the England star may get over-run by the far heavier Sonny Bill Williams in midfield.
Wales chief Gatland has always been renowned for his powerful, no-nonsense centres so, in a game of such magnitude, it has come as a surprise that he has changed tactics so markedly.
However, Larder, who was Lions defence coach the last time they visited New Zealand in 2005 and held the position for England when they won the 2003 World Cup, praised the decision.
I don’t think we’ll beat New Zealand smashing the ball up the middle. We have to ask questions of them. A lot of people are saying Leigh Halfpenny should be in at full-back for that very reason.Phil Larder
“It has surprised me – really surprised me,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“Everyone goes on about WarrenBall and his big, straight runners getting across the advantage line as that is what he has always done with his centres.
“And Te’o, in every game I’ve seen, has played exceptionally well, doing just that carrying it strongly.
“But, with England, I know we always liked playing with a second five-eighth – having Jonny Wilkinson and then a clever footballer in Will Greenwood alongside him.
“Eddie (Jones) does that now with England, too, with George Ford and Owen Farrell.
“But it just seems out of character for Warren. I think it’s the right decision, though.
“I’d have done the same and gone with Sexton and Farrell; it gives him more attacking scope.
“He is going to have change tactics to have a chance of winning and it looks like he will play far more expansively. I hope he does.
“I don’t think we’ll beat New Zealand smashing the ball up the middle. We have to ask questions of them. A lot of people are saying Leigh Halfpenny should be in at full-back for that very reason.
“But Liam Williams made that cracking run to set up that try in the first Test and I think it’s right he’s in. It’s a very attacking team.
“I just don’t think it will be enough, though. We’ll score some points, I’m sure, but I still feel this All Blacks side will win by 20.”
Working for Sir Clive Woodward’s tourists in 2005, Larder witnessed first-hand New Zealand’s power as the Lions were vanquished 3-0 by a revered team including Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Tana Umaga, Justin Marshall and the late Jerry Collins.
He said: “I think this side now is even better – it is pretty special.
“Everyone asked how would they ever replace Dan Carter but, personally, I think Beauden Barrett is actually a better player; he has everything.
“I think this New Zealand team are considerably ahead of any other international side.
“To be honest, I just love watching them. In that first Test last week, the way the forwards were hitting the ball in and using their footwork and offloading skills was absolutely superb at times.
“There was the way, with their first try, the hooker picked the ball up off his bootlaces; that level of skill epitomises everything they do.”
Larder, who coached both England and Great Britain rugby league sides as well as Keighley Cougars and Sheffield Eagles before switching codes, accepts Farrell may be targeted defensively this morning.
However, the 72-year-old believes it is a risk worth taking.
“Owen is a good defender, there’s no doubting that,” said Larder, who was also defence coach on the Lions tour of Australia in 2001.
“But when you’re coming up against Sonny Bill ideally you want two big fellas to be able to two-man him in the tackle.
“The Lions won’t have that with Sexton and Farrell in the middle so it does slightly weaken them defensively.
“But this is the way I would have started the series and I’m sure Eddie Jones would have done, too.
“It will be interesting to see how it all pans out. For the Lions to win over there, though, in the professional era is simply almost an impossible job.
“It is such a difficult task mainly because all their international players – like in Australia and South Africa, too – are contracted to their international body.
“Given they can train as often as they like together – almost as much time as you’d see Yorkshire Carnegie or Leeds Rhinos spend together here – it just makes it all the more difficult for the four home nations to get a squad together after a long domestic season and go out there and win.
“I remember in 2001 we beat Australia quite convincingly in the first Lions Test but then lost the next two.
“When we got back I remember Andy Robinson saying he thought England would have done better – even though players like Brian O’Driscoll would have walked into the England side – as we had trained together a lot and had that understanding. The All Blacks are a different level now.”