We take a look at the Lions team Warren Gatland has named for the opening game of the 2017 tour
With the British & Irish Lions team for the first game named, this tour feels real now!
The Lions open their 2017 campaign against the NZ Provincial Barbarians at Toll Stadium in Whangarei on Saturday – and Warren Gatland has picked a strong squad.
As expected, those players who have been training with the Lions from the off make up the bulk of the starting XV – they have had the longest to work on combinations and game plans. Only Jared Payne of that original 14 misses out on a place in the run-on side, with Alun Wyn Jones and Johnny Sexton completing the line up.
There are nine new Lions in the starting line-up but the leadership credentials of the side are impressive, with three national captains – Jones, Greig Laidlaw and Rory Best – and Lions skipper Sam Warburton in the XV.
“We have named a side that showcases a strong combination of experience and youth,” says Gatland. “It’s a great opportunity for the whole match-day squad to lay down a marker and get the tour off to a good start.”
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Sexton gets the first opportunity at fly-half, with Owen Farrell on the bench. The Ireland No 10 had a poor game for Leinster in their Guinness Pro12 semi-final defeat by the Scarlets two weeks ago so will be looking to put in a performance that is up to his more usual high standards.
It will be interesting to see whether Farrell comes on as a straight replacement for Sexton at ten or for Ben Te’o in the midfield – the latter option would give the coaches to see the much touted Sexton-Farrell 10-12 combination in action.
The back three looks dangerous, with the creativity of Stuart Hogg, the pace of Anthony Watson and the work-rate of Tommy Seymour a good balance, while Te’o and Jonathan Joseph in the centres will be familiar with one another from their time with England.
The all-Welsh back row should complement each other too – the power of Ross Moriarty, the softer skills of Taulupe Faletau and the jackling of Warburton.
It’s a powerful partnership in the second row with Jones teaming up with Ireland’s Iain Henderson, who should also work well with his Ulster team-mate Best at lineout time. There’s another club duo in the front row, Harlequins’ Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler the props.
Having familiar combinations is a boon for the Lions in their opening game given their lack of preparation time, but it must also be stated that this will be by far their easiest game of the tour, with the majority of players in the Provincial Barbarians squad from the level below Super Rugby. They will probably be more unfamiliar with each other than some of these Lions and the tourists should win comfortably.
Come Saturday night in Whangarei, we’ll see what the Lions Class of 2017 are made of.
NZ Provincial Barbarians v British & Irish Lions, 7.35pm (8.35am UK & Ireland), Toll Stadium, live on Sky Sports and TalkSport
Lions starting XV: Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o, Tommy Seymour; Johnny Sexton, Greig Laidlaw; Joe Marler, Rory Best, Kyle Sinckler, Alun Wyn Jones, Iain Henderson, Ross Moriarty, Sam Warburton (capt), Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Tadhg Furlong, George Kruis, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Owen Farrell, Jared Payne.