New Zealand and the British and Ireland Lions have announced their starting lineups for the first test match. Both teams have made unexpected switches, taking many pundits by surprise. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the team selections and wonders if Gatland’s gamble will pay off at the weekend.
British and Irish Lions
For Maro Itoje and Leigh Halfpenny, the first test team selection will be a disappointment. Both players looked like first names on the team sheet but management have thought otherwise. Jones gets the nod to partner George Kruis in the second row, a solid selection but question marks remain on match fitness as well as his lineout relationship with Jamie George linger for me personally.
The lineout is an area where the Lions cannot falter; this needs to be a solid platform and with Itoje familiarity with George for both club and country, it looked like an obvious choice. The jury is out on this selection as Itoje will patiently look for his chance to impress off the bench. Jones’ work rate is not the issue, more continuity of hooker and second row partnership built against the Crusaders and Maoris.
Halfpenny has being solid but perhaps has paid the price for the try concession against the Maoris when both he and North failed to deal with an innocous kick behind. Halfpenny’s kicking off the tee has being exemplary and his game reading overall has being on point apart from that Maori try which personally thought was more North’s responsibility than the Toulon player. Halfpenny can feel a little aggrieved not to be included in the starting lineup.
Liam Williams comes in as full back. An indifferent start to the tour but the Scarlets player took his opportunity superbly yesterday with a superb all action performance against the Chiefs. If Williams can continue in the same vain, the selection will be merited. Williams’ pace is superb and his kick game out of hand is usually on point. No issues with the selection; shows the strength in depth for full back. Imagine if Hogg was still on tour.
Daly inclusion was coming. North’s performance against the Maoris opened the door and the Wasps player took the opportunity yesterday to put his hand for selection with an excellent performance. His strengths are his pace and big boot which may come to play with long range penalty attempts. His ability to create openings was evident in the victory over the Chiefs this week. Daly, Williams and Watson provide an extremely pacy back three for Lions to use if the game gets very open and loose.
The rest of the selection I think was along familiar. Teo at twelve is no surprise, his cameos on tour with Davies at thirteen meant that Gatland and management had the former league convert in their thoughts for the test series. Murray and Farrell will be a solid half-back partnership. Murray’s box kicking game hopefully to put the likes of Dagg under immense pressure early to establish territory.
Farrell at ten will be targeted in his defensive duties. His game management is on point and it will be key for the Saracens player to set the tone early, establish territory for the Lions to potentially test New Zealand in the lineout.
Delighted for Peter O’Mahoney who has being named Lions captain. A player who leads by example. Gatland looking to target the New Zealand lineout with three genuine jumpers in the ranks. O’Mahoney will empty the tank and with the undoubted quality of Warburton coming off the bench, the breakdown area will remain competitive. The lineout disruption that O’Mahoney brings to proceedings cannot be underestimated and the lineout battle will be key for Lions to exploit particularly in this opening test.
O’Brien edges the battle for the seven jersey and Faletau was always favored for the eight jersey when Billy Vunipola withdrew from the tour. An experienced side on paper and one that will look to take the battle to New Zealand in the pack and hope to yield penalties and set a platform.
This is an imposing first fifteen announced by Steve Hansen today. Kieran Reid returns to the national side after a two month absence (broken thumb). Questions maybe on game time but no doubt, training has being massively intense. The pack for New Zealand is quite experienced with names such Franks, Retallick, Kaino, Reid. Cody Taylor will look to execute the lineout with efficiency; it will be interesting to see if the Lions can exploit any weak points in this set piece. The scrum looks 50/50 and match officiating will be key in the initial scrummages.
Smith and Barrett are a quality half-back pairing. Smith has put his off field indiscretions to one side and gets the nod to partner Barrett who showed his full array of skills in the trouncing of Samoa. Kicking was on point as well as making the right passing call at the right time. The center partnerhip of Williams and Crotty looks explosive. Williams was sublime for the Blues early in the Lions tour; his offloading was superb and it will be a challenge for the Lions to stop the momentum of Sonny Bill in this department.
Crotty is such a quality player; no fuss attitude and is well capable of producing a sensational line break from absolutely nothing. Dagg and Smith complete the side; not a weak point in sight. This is such a formidable outfit. Lions will look to stifle upfront and the back row battle will be key to slow down New Zealand ball. However, Lions are going to have to endure moments where Smith / Perenera gets quick early ball. New Zealand could be devastating. Hopefully, the Lions will learn from their mistakes on the tour so far and produce a stirring performance. Otherwise, New Zealand could quite easily hammer Lions. When you can afford to drop Milner Skudder and Julian Savea, life is good.