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British and Irish Lions: All to play for still, but Test team starting to take shape

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

If Sam Warburton was rattled in any way by Sean O'Brien's performance in Christchurch on Saturday morning, the Lions captain wasn't showing it.

Named as skipper for the side that takes on the Highlanders tomorrow, the Welshman calmly sifted through the issues of the day without ever looking ruffled by the prospect that his Irish rival had stolen a march on Test selection with his all-action display.

Both flankers are playing their way back to fitness having missed the last two months of the season; Warburton looked sluggish after damaging his ankle in the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians and O'Brien looked as sharp as he has for some time in the win over the Crusaders.

At one stage, he hunted down out-half Richie Mo'unga to prevent a certain try, showing real pace and awareness. Warren Gatland hailed his leadership abilities in the aftermath. It was all good news.

As Warburton  attested yesterday, O'Brien is a world-class operator, and the skipper threw Justin Tipuric into that category as well.

The captain was keen to stress that Test match selection is a long game, pointing out that missing out in week one doesn't rule you out for the remainder of the series.

He conceded that his lack of match fitness is an issue and said he would be open with Gatland if he is not feeling as sharp as he should be.

And yet the competitor remained within. Pointedly, he spoke at length about the lack of turnovers in the tour so far and stressed that it is his point of difference. Watch him target the breakdown relentlessly tomorrow.

This is what the coach wants from his squad. When one top-class operator lays down a marker, he wants a response. For all the harmony behind the scenes, they need an edge, and with less than two weeks to go until the first Test, the window of opportunity is closing.

"I definitely need more games," Warburton said. "I knew that coming into the tour. I've learned from experience that it takes me at least two games and then the third game I'll probably be playing some good rugby, but 'Gats' knew that.

"I know there's every chance that I might not even get involved in that first Test.

"I see it as I'm tour captain, and if I make the first Test, that would be a bonus for me, but there's three Tests to get selected for, so it's not the be all and end all with the first one.

"I'll be honest with Gats; if I play Tuesday and I still feel I'm a bit undercooked, then I might not be ready for that first Test. Maybe I could have a blinder and feel absolutely fine. If I feel I need more games, I'll tell him I don't feel ready."

Gatland has earmarked next Saturday's clash with the Maori All Blacks as a dress rehearsal for the Tests, and while he didn't rule out starting Warburton, the player himself suggested two starts in five days was unlikely.

The back-row is just one conundrum occupying Gatland's thoughts after the tour got a much-needed fillip in Christchurch. They'll want to continue the momentum in Dunedin against a Highlanders side that is missing big names like Aaron and Ben Smith. The Highlanders do possess a couple of All Black backs, including spurned centre Malakai Fekitoa, who has plenty to prove after being dropped by Steve Hansen, but the visiting pack and defence will draw on the performance against the Crusaders and look to build.

The selection of Jared Payne at full-back is fascinating, and the Kiwi-born Ireland international has the capacity to take a big step forward if he can bring the kind of counter-attacking he showed for Ireland in South Africa last summer to the shirt.

Leigh Halfpenny looks pencilled in, but the Lions are less reliant on the Welshman's boot this time around given Owen Farrell's assured performance on Saturday.

Stuart Hogg's tour is in jeopardy as he goes for scans on his cheek after his accidental collision with Conor Murray, and Payne has the talent to put himself in the frame. Farrell only got a short spell at No 10 because of Jon Davies' concussion which saw Johnny Sexton come on for his third game in a week and finally find his form.

The combination hadn't been trialled in training, according to Gatland, but the way they clicked instantly and worked so slickly together suggested that this was something the coach had been holding back for a later date.

"I thought they went pretty well. Owen was good and Johnny, that was a better performance from Johnny than in the first game," Gatland said.

"It was nice to see that combination and that does give us potentially some scope there. Ben Te'o had a good game, having to move out to (outside) centre and cope with that too."

Te'o's impressive outing puts the onus on Robbie Henshaw tomorrow, while Rory Best needs a big game after the Saracens connection of Jamie George and George Kruis worked so well against the Crusaders.

The tight five positions are becoming clear, while tonight's half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar need a strong performance. After Peter O'Mahony's masterful display and Taulupe Faletau's excellent No 8 play, CJ Stander is another who must respond.

All the while, the Lions must find a way of finishing the chances they've created. They've only scored two tries in three games, conceding four.

Gatland was riled by that criticism yesterday, but he needs to find a way of shutting the local media out.

The win on Saturday gave him a solid base to build a Test challenge. His team is taking shape, but he'd prefer it if a few more hands shot up tomorrow morning under the roof in Dunedin.

"A lot of people last night put their hands up," was Gatland's take.

"That's the challenge. The guys playing on Tuesday know they've got to perform collectively so they're in contention."

Predicted first Test team: J Payne; G North, B Te'o, O Farrell, J Nowell; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, J George, T Furlong; AW Jones, G Kruis; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, T Faletau. Reps: K Owens, M Vunipola, K Sinckler, M Itoje, S Warburton, R Webb, R Henshaw, A Watson.

Belfast Telegraph

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