WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Alun Wyn Jones will play an eighth straight British and Irish Lions test on Saturday but anything short of a stellar performance against the All Blacks will make a ninth highly unlikely.
The retention of the Welsh lock for the second test in Wellington was the biggest surprise of Lions coach Warren Gatland’s selection for a match the tourists must win to keep the series alive.
The 31-year-old, who played his first Lions test against the Springboks in 2009 and captained the tourists in the series-clinching victory over Australia four years ago, had something of an off-night against the All Blacks in the 30-15 first test defeat last week.
Spilling a pass with the Lions on the attack in the first half at Eden Park was one glaring error but overall he appeared off the pace in a match of rare intensity.
Gatland thinks the All Blacks should be prepared for a backlash in Wellington on Saturday.
“It is a big game for him,” the New Zealander said on Thursday.
”He was a bit disappointed with how it went last week. He is pretty focused and motivated. Normally in the past when he has been challenged he has really fronted the next game.
“He has trained well this week and is looking forward to Saturday night.”
With size, physicality, leadership skills and 117 tests worth of experience, Jones would have been on most people’s “likely Lions” list for the last four years.
The second row was always going to be an area of relative strength for the Lions, though, and the England trio of Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes, as well as Irishman Iain Henderson, have been pushing hard all tour.
Itoje’s claims for a start could no longer be ignored and he will line-up in Wellington alongside Jones, while Kruis has been dropped and Lawes called up to the bench.
Gatland has often been accused of being partial to the Wales players he coaches when not on Lions duty and the choice of Jones will do little to silence that criticism.
Outside Itoje, Henderson has been arguably the form lock on tour and Gatland admitted he could consider himself unlucky not to be in the squad, especially given the desire for big ball runners to put pressure on the All Blacks defence.
“I had a lot of chat to him and said ‘keep your head up. We spoke a lot about you and being in the 23’,” Gatland added.
“Iain has been causing teams problems with his carrying and I said that just because he was not involved in the game this weekend, it didn’t mean he would be excluded the following week.”
(Changes to Jones on second reference throughout)
Writing by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney,; Editing by Peter Rutherford