Warren Gatland has been able to name the first unchanged Lions side since 1993 as Steve Hansen has been forced into more changes
Warren Gatland has had the luxury of being able to name the same 23 players who took part in the nail-biting 24-21 win over New Zealand in Wellington.
It is the first time since 1993, that the Lions have been able to field an unchanged squad and shows the faith the Lions management has in their players. There were a few areas up for debate. Primarily at loosehead, where Mako Vunipola’s rush of blood to the head, which saw him pick up a yellow card, was thought to have put him in danger of dropping out of the side. However, Gatland has stuck with him, for his dynamism and the fact that his loss of control was out of character for the 47-Test Saracen.
Elsewhere, there were suggestions outside the camp, that Courtney Lawes, so impressive in his 20-minute cameo, may have snuck ahead of Alun Wyn Jones in the reckoning, but Gatland has again shown faith in the abrasive Welshman, who put in a huge physical shift in the Second Test, atoning for an indifferent display in the First Test. It will be the ninth successive Lions Test the Osprey will have featured in, having become only the seventh Lion to have registered wins against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
In the backrow, with the hugely impressive Sean O’Brien gaining a reprieve from the citing committee, he’s able to form a muscular and balanced backrow unit with Sam Warburton, and try-scorer from the Second Test, Taulupe Faletau.
In the backline, Liam Williams appears to have shaken off some stiffness in his leg, which forced him to curtail training yesterday and Warren Gatland has again opted for the creativity offered by Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, as opposed to the ballast Ben Te’o gives hurtling down the 10-12 channel.
Steve Hansen, is unable to have such luxury. With Sonny Bill Williams banned, in midfield, he’s put the human exocet, Ngani Laumape outside Anton Lienert-Brown, in an untested midfield partnership, and while Laumape is a handful going forward, he was exposed defensively in Wellington. The powerful Highlander Malakai Fekitoa has been parachuted straight onto the bench.
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With Ben Smith suffering from concussion, Hansen has decided to give 20-year-old Hurricane, Jordie Barrett his first All Blacks start, and it will be interesting to see whether he is given kicking duties at Eden Park, with his big brother, Beauden, missing three kicks at the Westpac. With Barrett at 15, Israel Dagg reverts back to the right flank. On the opposite side, the All Blacks have the luxury of being able to call on Julian Savea who has crossed the whitewash on 46 occasions in his 53 appearances.
With the locals in New Zealand describing it as the biggest Test on home soil since the 2011 Rugby World Cup final and thousands of Lions fans drifting into Auckland, the stakes couldn’t be much higher for both sides in what promises to be a classic.
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions, 7.35pm (8.35am UK & Ireland), Eden Park, Auckland, Live on Sky Sports and TalkSport
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett; Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read
Reps: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa.
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Lions: Liam Williams; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly; Johnny Sexton , Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton (c), Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau
Reps: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell