Belfast Telegraph

Boss has selection headache with key calls still to be made


By Jonathan Bradley

With the naming of his team for today's clash with the Chiefs in Hamilton, Warren Gatland gave a fairly clear indication of his thinking for Saturday's first Test with the All Blacks, but there are still some big selection calls the Lions head coach has to make.

Those in action at the Waikato Stadium (8.35am kick-off) will realistically know that the best they are hoping for, bar injuries in training, is a spot on the bench for the first encounter with the back-to-back World champions, but there is still plenty of jostling for position among those who will be suited on the sidelines this morning.

The most difficult decision facing the coach could be just what to do with his tour captain.

Sam Warburton came in with precious little rugby under his belt thanks to an injury suffered against Ulster during April.

He has been able to feature three times on tour but is not yet firing on all cylinders.

In contrast, Sean O'Brien, who also travelled to New Zealand with no match action since April, has recaptured his form of old, mightily impressing whenever given the chance.

And with Peter O'Mahony having gone from outside the starting Ireland team during the Six Nations to the Lions, he now seems the safest bet to be captain on Saturday.

Out-half Owen Farrell, after giving the Lions something of a scare after picking up a quad strain, has been declared fit by management to start a Lions Test for a first time.

Johnny Sexton had started in his absence during Saturday's win over the Maori, with the Irishman seemingly back to his best after an indifferent season that featured below-par showings for Leinster and to begin this tour.

Playing the two together is another option that would satisfy those claiming that, after seven tries in five games, the Lions lack cutting edge.

Farrell has played in midfield for England, where George Ford tends to wear the No.10 jersey, and it was a tactic that bore fruit for 50 minutes against the Crusaders when the Lions were forced into an early reshuffle thanks to an injury in the centres.

The added wrinkle here, though, is Ben Te'o.

The native Kiwi, who spent a middling spell at Leinster before moving to Worcester a year ago, was something of a surprise inclusion when the original panel was named, especially considering he had started just once for his adopted nation England.

But he has had a fine tour so far, while Jonathan Davies - who Gatland famously stuck with four years ago at the expense of Brian O'Driscoll when Jamie Roberts returned - is a favourite of the coach who has found form in recent months.

To start at least, it seems likely Sexton will have to make do with a spot on the bench.

The other big call seems to be in the second row.

Saracens and England pair George Kruis and Maro Itoje have made the most compelling case, but Gatland could still be tempted to include Alun Wyn Jones at the latter's expense.

If he were to resist, it could open the door for Ulster's Iain Henderson who would seem more suited to making an impact off the bench. But, whoever is named by Gatland tomorrow, previous tours have shown that much will change between the first Test and the end of tour.

POTENTIAL LIONS TEAM FOR FIRST TEST: L Halfpenny; A Watson, J Davies, B Te'o, G North; O Farrell, C Murray; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong; M Itoje, G Kruis; P O'Mahony (captain), S O'Brien, T Faletau.

Replacements: K Owens, J McGrath, K Sinckler, I Henderson, S Warburton, R Webb, J Sexton, E Daly.

Belfast Telegraph


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