The British and Irish Lions scored a decisive win against the Maori All Blacks, 32-10, on Saturday. And now it looks like the majority of the 23 will feature in the first test, this Saturday, 24th June, at 8.30 am Irish time. Roughly the same 23 featured in the win over the Crusaders as well.
This looks to be confirmed as Warren Gatland has called in 6 new replacements for the Lions game against the Chiefs, on Tuesday (8.30 am Irish Time).
Gatland has come into some criticism for calling in these replacements, 4 from Wales and 2 from Scotland, as all 6 have struggled to gain selection for their own national sides, let alone the British and Irish Lions.
Gatland has stated that he wants to rest the test squad, and picked players that were closest to hand (Wales are touring the Pacific Islands and Scotland are touring Australia) as cover.
Eddie Jones, the English coach, has been particularly vociferous about Gatland’s selection, pointing out that with modern air travel, players could be called from anywhere.
The Lions are supposed to be the elite of Northern Hemisphere rugby, and players like Johnny Gray, Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury and Chris Robshaw, who missed out on the initial squad selection could easily slot into the set up.
Gatland has denied accusations that he has devalued the jersey of the Lions and has restated that his focus is on winning the test series. He did the same thing in 2013 when he called in 4 replacements before the first test, including Shane Williams, who had retired from first class rugby and was playing for a second division side in Japan. The selection seemed to pay off as the Lions went on to win the series. It will have to be seen if history repeats itself.
The 2 toughest games for the Lions, outside this year’s test series, was always going to be against the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks, and the Lions have come away with a perfect 2 wins from 2.
The Lions dominated the Maori for the majority of the game and outclassed their illustrious opponents. It was the first defeat conceded by the Maori after a run of 20 straight victories against international sides, dating back to 2003.
Granted, the Maori had had only a week to prepare for the Lions fixture, and had gone into the match without a warm-up game, and thus were undercooked, but none of that should take away from what was a great Lions performance.
The Lions had gotten off to a poor start on this tour, struggling to beat the New Zealand Barbarians, and losing to the Blues, the club with the worst record in New Zealand.
Things had looked dire for the Northern Hemisphere side, with many believing that the All Blacks looked likely to deliver their 4th whitewash in a Lions series, after 1966, ’83 and 2005. Now, with these 2 wins under their belts, the Lions look like they will give New Zealand a run for their money in the test series.
One question mark that stands against the Lions, however, is their attack.
While the Lions defence and performance in the set piece has been terrific, their attack has been poor.
In the 2 wins, the Lions only scored one try, which was from a driving maul. A penalty try was also awarded. Both tries came in the game against the Maori. The Lions failed to score a try against the Crusaders, though they also denied the Crusaders scoring a try themselves.
While breaks have been made, the Lions have been unable to complete moves and score tries. Players dropping balls or been unable to find and pass to teammates in support. This is a usual problem for a scratch side like the Lions, with players unused to playing together regularly.
As roughly the same 23 players featured in both of the victories, it would seem likely that these will be the chosen squad for the 1st test at least, if not the series. Also, few of the other players have stood up for selection.
While the Lions have been able to beat the Crusaders and Maori with a strong defence and set piece, they will need a lot more to emerge victorious against the New Zealand All Blacks.
The Lions can be competitive against the All Blacks, they will need to score tries if they want to win a test, let alone the series.
These are the payers that look likely to start the first test:
LEIGH HALFPENNY-the star of the 2013 series, had suffered a dip in form over the ensuing years, but looks close to his best after a slow start on tour. His elevation is also helped by the injury to Stuart Hogg. Hasn’t missed a kick all tour.
ANTHONY WATSON-scored a try in the opening fixture. Hasn’t been able to show much attacking flair in the more high profile games but his defence has been solid.
JONATHAN DAVIES-another star of the ’13 series. Late starter after recovering from injury setback. Made some great breaks against the Maori.
BEN TE’O-the Lions biggest attacking threat so far. Few have been able to contain him. Will likely be replaced during the first test for Owen Farrell.
GEORGE NORTH-the giant Welsh wing has been very quiet this tour. Gatland will be hoping he comes alive for the test series. If not, Elliot Daly would be a fair replacement.
JONNY SEXTON-one of the best out-halves in the world, the Irish star has come into his own after a slow start to the tour. Competition with Farrell is high for the starting birth.
CONOR MURRAY-came out as the likely starting scrum-half and has delivered in spades. Could be the Lions best no.9 since Gareth Edwards.
MAKO VUNIPOLA-one of the most competitive positions in the squad but Vunipola looks to have edged Jack McGrath for the test spot at loose head. Will want to add to his great series in 2013.
JAMIE GEORGE-pips Ken Owens for the starting spot at hooker, after yet to start a game for England. Great in the set piece, especially his throwing in the line out.
TADHG FURLONG-his already strong reputation has been enhanced on tour. Terrific performance all round.
MARO ITOJE-not even 23, but already one of the best second rows around. Star of the last two 6 Nations tournaments. Scored a try against the Maori. Terrific, passionate performer. Future Lions captain.
GEORGE KRUIS-paramount to the Lions dominating in the set piece. Both he and Itoje look to have kept the legendary Alun Wyn Jones out of the starting XV.
PETER O’MAHONY-only played one game of this year’s 6 Nations, but his performance in that match earned him a call-up to the Lions. Since then, his performances have been brilliant all round. May captain the Lions in the first test after leading so well against the Maori.
SEAN O’BRIEN-another player that has enhanced his already strong reputation. May have forced tour skipper, Sam Warburton, onto the replacements bench for the first test.
TOBY FALATEAU-for me, the star player for the Lions so far. New Zealand have yet to find someone to contain him. Streets ahead of his nearest rival.
REPLACEMENTS: Jack McGrath and Ken Owens are definites. Alun Wyn Jones may get the nod ahead of Courntey Lawes due to his experience. Warburton has been shunted to the replacements bench but makes a great impact sub.
Greig Laidlaw-the Scottish captain slightly edges Rhys Webb.
OWEN FARRELL- if fit, will definitely feature. Can play at the highest level at 10 or 12. Linked well with Sexton in the Crusaders game. Was injured for the Maori game.
ELLIOT DALY- has been picked to play against the Chiefs on Tuesday. Edges Liam Williams for a place on the bench.