Belfast Telegraph

None of the tourists would start for New Zealand, but that won't define Test duels


By Tony Ward

By common consensus, tomorrow's clash with the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua represents the unofficial fourth Test. As dress rehearsals for the Lions go, this is as big as it gets.

Were the tourists to lose a third game in five it would not be the end of the world, but this performance has to be the central plank in the build-up to the series opener.

In planning ahead, Warren Gatland would have targeted the Maori clash as the cut-off point between the Saturday squad and the dirt-trackers.

He's not quite there yet, but signs are of a side, though limited in attacking ambition, well capable of squeezing any opposition to the limit. It ain't pretty, but it is shaping up to be a finely balanced three-Test series.

I am struggling to name any Lions player worth a starting spot in the New Zealand side, but, particularly in a touring situation, a team can be far greater than the sum of its parts.

When you are living and working in a rugby bubble, there is a bond that develops that is unquantifiable. On tour with the Lions, that 'body on the line' ethos just develops.

What the Lions may lack in creative skill when compared to the All Blacks will be compensated through sheer graft and a defensive work ethic based on line-speed and kick-chase. If you want to call it 'Warrenball' then so be it.

Will it be enough to win the Test series? For the sake of the game I hope not, but given that the Lions have triumphed just once in the Land of the Long White Cloud, we would accept victory any which way.

The odds are certainly against Warren Gatland's men.

In terms of selection, there are question marks over full-back, the out-half/inside-centre combination, one lock and blindside flanker - and, by extension, the captaincy.

Gatland will hope that some of his 'probables' make unanswerable cases tomorrow.

If Owen Farrell is not in the side (for whatever reason) then Leigh Halfpenny will start at full-back, and will be the first-choice goalkicker.

Anthony Watson has had limited opportunity at No.15 (bear in mind he played full-back throughout his under-age career) but potentially looks the best option.

The alternative back three would be Watson at full-back, with George North on the right wing and Liam Williams ahead of Elliot Daly (still utility/impact replacement) on the left.

If Jonathan Davies is fully recovered and delivers the type of form he closed out the season for the Scarlets then he will rightly fill the outside-centre slot, leaving it a straight call between Ben Te'o and Robbie Henshaw at No.12.

I do not share the view that Johnny Sexton and Farrell should both be accommodated - at No.10 and No.12 respectively - based on what was delivered from broken play in the latter stages of the Blues game.

What seems so simple and obvious in theory is a lot more complex in reality.

In psychological terms (never mind physical) fielding two out-halves is a massive challenge.

I bet even Eddie Jones is having second thoughts about this policy given George Ford's commanding performance for England in Argentina last weekend when given the sole responsibility of out-half without Farrell breathing down his neck.

And if Sexton plays out of his skin tomorrow then Gatland may have a problem he could well do without.

Rhys Webb, if fit, will be back-up to Conor Murray, with Iain Henderson's place on the bench for the Test depending on the choice of Jones or Maro Itoje in the second-row alongside George Kruis.

Four captains in five games tells its own tale, but giving the armband to Peter O'Mahony - Ireland's leader-in-waiting - tomorrow could well prove inspired.

Alun Wyn Jones seems the obvious choice for Eden Park if it doesn't work.

I'm not ruling out Sam Warburton, but on all evidence thus far, the 2013 captain is simply not worth his place in the Test side.

Belfast Telegraph


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