This article was written last night before the Lions team announcement. Several keynote inclusions revealed today proving that no-one should try to predict what Warren Gatland does in team selection.
Almost three weeks down on the British & Lions Tour and at last momentum and form is being generated by the tourists. A dominant victory over the Chiefs this morning means that the British & Lions party enter preparations for the first test match against New Zealand in renewed hope and confidence. Who has impressed, who has ground to make up and who will form the first fifteen for the first test? Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.
Several players have stood out on the tour so far. The front row on duty against the Crusaders and Maori’s seem to have the upper hand in terms of test match selection. Furlong, George and Mako Vunipola look most likely to fill the front row spots. Their consistency over recent weeks probably gives them the edge over their midweek counterparts who have struggled at times for cohesion in set piece.
The second row is very intriguing. Given that Jamie George looks to be ahead in the hooker position depth chart, will Gatland look to George’s club mates in Maro Itoje and George Kruis to retain continuity and set piece partnership which has being superb for Saracens this season. Obviously, Jones comes into the equation here. A natural leader of the pack. Ian Henderson has grown into the tour as well; his performance today was excellent. Gatland has options in this line so it will be interesting to see who he picks.
The back row options is also an intriguing selection poser for Lions management. Peter O’Mahoney’s captaincy cameo has increased his chances of a test match this weekend; more strengthened by the fact that Sam Warburton is struggling for fitness.
O’Mahoney’s threat in winning opposition line-out is a real positive for the team. Warburton’s work rate and breakdown work is sublime. What does Gatland go with? I think it is far to presume that Faletau will be the number eight given the absence of the man mountain Billy Vunipola.
The other back row position is very much up for grabs. Plenty of candidates are putting their name up for selection. Sean O’Brien probably is in the box seat considering his performances over consecutive weekends but with the likes of Stander, Tipuric and Haskell in the mix, selection looks arduous. Why do I have a sneaky feeling that Justin Tipuric will be picked for this test match? Superb at the breakdown, stealing opposition ball. Gatland may conceivably go with two Welsh players in the back row.
The nine position is pretty much a lock at this time. Murray’s displays have being on point; his box kicking provides a superb platform for the Lions to exploit New Zealand back line in the air. Hopefully, the kick chase will be on point to win the territorial battle. The decision is who fills the backup scrum-half position. It looks like Laidlaw is second in the depth chart and his ability to kick penalties will be a plus. Webb has had flashes of brilliance but also flashes of indiscipline.
The ten position is an area where discussion will reign. Biggar today had an excellent outing today; his game management and control were superb all game. Biggar is a different animal when he needs to prove people wrong. I think the performance today was for management to say that he wants to be part of the test match setup. A performance which will resonate with management.
If management decide that Owen Farrell will play at twelve, then the ten jersey is very much for grabs. Sexton looks to be in a good position to take the jersey given his weekend cameos but I have concerns that New Zealand will look to target the player with aggressive ball carrying. Sexton’s skill set is abundantly clear but whether he is able to ship more devastating knocks is a different question. His form is slowly coming together. The ten jersey selection is not as clear some may suggest.
The three quarters looks like it will Ben Teo and Jonathan Davies unless there is a total change in management thinking. Gatland is an admirer of Teo; his abrasive ball carrying and potential offloading game looks to be catching the eye more for Lions management than the cameos of the likes of Henshaw and Joseph who have had flashes of brilliance. Davies is the all round thirteen; his game management will be key and his ability to game read New Zealand attacking plays will need to be on point.
The wings looked like a straightforward selection for management up until the start of the Chiefs fixture when the likes of Eliot Daly and Jack Nowell announced themselves to the tour. Nowell was all action throughout; his work rate and ball carrying were on point. His aerial dominance probably was the standout for me. Daly has it all to be frank. His speed, pace and kicking game means that he is guaranteed a spot in the test match squad. Whether the Wasps player is selected to start is a different story. George North has being put on notice that anymore mistakes like against the Maori’s will mean demotion from the starting lineup. I would expect North to start, the man for the big occasion tag needs to stick at the weekend, otherwise Gatland and management will get plenty of flak.
Anthony Watson has done little wrong in this tour. Lively with ball in hand and has performed his defensive duties with efficiency, the England winger is a cert to start unless management has a fundamental shift in team selection.
The full back spot is a lock for Leigh Halfpenny. The Welsh star is so consistent in his kicking off the tee and is probably one of the first selections made by Gatland ahead of the weekend. It is a great shame that Hogg is no longer on the touring party. Liam Williams and Jared Payne had good cameos today but the loss to the Highlanders exposed both last week which has probably gone against them in test match selection.