Before the First Test…….. 23 June 2017

So, Gatland has really gone for it with his selections for the first test. His choice of Elliot Daly and Liam Williams is bold and adventurous and in stark contrast to his usual more pragmatic and cautious self. Is this a response to all the ‘Warrenball’ accusations and a desire to be different or has he been persuaded by his fellow coaches that he needs to pick a more expansive team if the Lions are to stand any chance of winning the first test ? It is certainly a little from leftfield and has certainly taken everyone by surprise.

Indeed, the Lions squad will be buzzing at the selection of Daly and Williams as it proves that the midweek matches do matter and that anyone can force their way into the team if they play exceptionally well. Furthermore, it proves that there are no pre-conceived ideas about selection and it dispels the myth that Gatland only selects his tried and tested Welshmen, like Halfpenny, North and Warburton. Indeed who could possibly have anticipated that none of them would have been selected in the team for the first test ?

This is certainly not the team that he or indeed anyone probably had in mind for the first test prior to the midweek game against the Chiefs. It could be argued that he has picked on form but, in a note of caution, what Daly and Williams showed against a weak, tiring and under strength Chiefs team in the second half on Tuesday, will be a far cry from what they will be facing in the cauldron of Eden Park on Saturday. They played fearlessly on Tuesday as both knew that they had nothing to lose but can they replicate that in this far more hostile and pressured environment?  I sincerely hope so, for both theirs and Gatland’s sake. There is no reason to suggest that they can’t as they are both emerging international players who have confidence in their own ability plus a touch of that elusive ‘x factor’ in their play, but it could be considered by many as a risk, albeit a calculated one,  picking them both above the vastly experienced and successful Lions from previous tours in Halfpenny and North. Time will tell but neither Halfpenny nor North have been cutting up trees with their play on this tour and have offered little in terms of an attacking threat, so why not make the change?  Fortune favours the brave sometimes and Gatland will be hoping that the rugby gods will be shining on him, as well as Daly and Williams on  Saturday.

The other selection decisions were far less contentious. Once Gatland announced pre-tour that he considered Owen Farrell a number 10 and not a number 12, it became a straight shoot out and the Englishman has proved that he deserves the fly half shirt in preference to Johny Sexton, albeit the Irishman is back approaching his best form and we may yet see them forming the 10-12 axis before the end of the match if T’eo is found wanting in any respects. However, so far, he has stood up to the plate and has proved a dangerous attacking threat so fully merits his place, as does the resurgent Jonathan Davies.

In the forwards, the most contentious selection is that of veteran campaigner Alan Wyn-Jones above the young buck Maro Itoje, which reflects a more cautious approach from Gatland but AWJ is an experienced performer at this level, both in the line out and around the pitch, as well a being a leader, so it is difficult not to see the logic in this decision.  Itoje is still young and his chance will come. He has shown signs of a lack of discipline at times which the Lions can ill afford here, so maybe an appearance off the bench makes more sense in this first test.

The back row is as expected following the demolition of the Maoris last Saturday yet who could possibly have imagined at the start of the tour that the two O’s, O’Mahony and O’Brien would be starting the first test, let alone with O’Mahony as captain. However, their selections are fully merited following some barnstorming performances by them both, allied to Warburton’s injuries and lack of match fitness. Furthermore, CJ Stander’s performances have been mixed, a combination of hard yards punctuated with simple errors which cannot be afforded in such a pressure cooker environment of a test match against the All Blacks. Tupiric can consider himself a little unlucky for he is a classic openside flanker who has performed admirably but such is the competition for the number 7 jersey that he was always likely to be fighting a losing battle, especially for the first test.

The bench is a mix of trusty lieutenants in McGrath, Owens, Sexton and Halfpenny, sprinkled with some dynamism and fizz from the likes of Itoje, Sinckler and Webb. It could be far worse and all could contribute in a positive way if required. The only question mark surrounds the lack of a finisher in the backline reserves, for example a Nowell rather than a Halfpenny but maybe that would have been a step too far in Gatland’s eyes.

So, the big question now is whether this team can beat the All Blacks?  For all this discussion about the back three selections, it is arguably unlikely, albeit not impossible, that the match will be won and lost there. The perceived wisdom is that the Lions need to persist with their high press defensive strategy, squeezing the life out of the All Blacks on the gain line, and giving them no room to play. Allied to this, the forwards really need to front up, matching fire with fire,  dominating the set piece and winning the big collisions. The half backs need to control where the match is played, Murray with his inch perfect box kicks and Farrell pushing the All Blacks back into the corners, especially if it’s wet as the early forecasts are suggesting that it might be.  The All Blacks must not be given broken field opportunities to run at the Lions at all costs, turnovers must be kept to an absolute minimum and the penalty count kept beneath the widely acknowledged number of 10, above which teams rarely win test matches.

So, where does this leave Daly and Williams ? Clearly the management feel that all the above might not be enough. The Lions have been relatively poor at turning possession into tries until Tuesday and maybe, just maybe, if the match is a close fought affair, the selection of these two will add a little sprinkle of stardust to what the Lions already have in terms of ballast, bulk and brawn and make that crucial difference. It’s going to be fascinating finding out. The rugby world awaits with baited breath.

Lions team: L Williams (Wales); A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), B Te’o (England), E Daly (England); O Farrell (England), C Murray (Ireland); M Vunipola (England), J George (England), T Furlong (Ireland); AW Jones (Wales), G Kruis (England); P O’Mahony (capt, Ireland), S O’Brien (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).

Replacements: K Owens (Wales), J McGrath (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), M Itoje (England), S Warburton (Wales), R Webb (Wales), J Sexton (Ireland), L Halfpenny (Wales).

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