Warren Gatland springs a few major surprises as he names the Lions squad to face the All Blacks with some attacking selections
Warren Gatland has always been his own man, unafraid to make the big selection calls, and again, he has surprised many with his picks for the First Test against the All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday night.
Arguably, the biggest call comes at full-back, where Gatland has plumped for Liam Williams over the more defensively minded Leigh Halfpenny. It was only months ago when Gatland’s assistant coach, Rob Howley said Williams was a better left-wing – but his cutting edge against the Chiefs, where he set up Jared Payne to cross the whitewash, and a very strong Series against the All Blacks 12 months ago, appear to have earned him the nod.
That’s not the only bold call. Star of 2013, George North has been left out of the 23 altogether, after showing little appetite for the ball on this tour and in his place comes Elliot Daly, who offers a howitzer of left-boot from over 50 metres, rapier pace and a sharp footballing brain. The back-three is completed by Anthony Watson, probably the only man who could match All Black flyer Reiko Ioane in a footrace.
In midfield, the form centres, Jonathan Davies and Ben Te’o are selected to add bulk, defensive organisation and the ability to punch holes, with Te’o in particular, expected to test out Beauden Barrett‘s appetite for defending the 10-12 channel, while Davies will look to nullify Sonny Bill’s offloading game.
At half-back, as expected Owen Farrell has recovered from a quad strain, where he will be expected to dictate play alongside Conor Murray, with their tactical kicking, looking to test the All Blacks in the wide channels.
In the backrow, Peter O’Mahony, who was struggling for a place in the Ireland set-up only in March, captains the side, with his work at the back of the lineout and unseen graft around the breakdown fundamental to the Lions’ equilibrium at the base of the scrum. Sean O’Brien‘s power and dynamism as a ball-carrier has been preferred to tour captain Sam Warburton, who is short of minutes, and there is no surprise that Taulupe Faletau completes the triumvirate.
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In the engine room, Gatland has stuck with the experience of Alun Wyn Jones, leaving Maro Itoje on the bench, but fully expecting him to bring his own brand of chaos from the bench at some point in the second-half. George Kruis partners Jones.
Up front the tireless Mako Vunipola and Jamie George make it three Saracens in the tight-five, with George yet to start a test for England. Anchoring the scrum will be Ireland’s tighthead Tadhg Furlong.
The bench is full of class and potency, with Kyle Sinckler expected ask questions of the All Blacks alongside Itoje, whle Rhys Webb and Sexton, offer a creative outlet should the Lions wish to mix things up. Leigh Halfpenny offers back three support and the insurance policy of being the world’s best kicker to bring off the bench. Someone you would trust if he had to clinch a game in the dying minutes.
All Blacks v British & Irish Lions, Tuesday 20 June, 7.35pm (8.35am UK & Ireland), FMG Stadium Waikato, live on Sky Sports and TalkSport
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Reiko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt)
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown
Lions: Liam Williams (Wales); Anthony Watson (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Ben Te’o (England), Elliot Daly (England); Owen Farrell (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), Mako Vunipola (England), Jamie George (England), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland); Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England); Peter O’Mahony (capt, Ireland), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
Replacements: Ken Owens (Wales), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (England), Maro Itoje (England), Sam Warburton (Wales), Rhys Webb (Wales), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)