Warren Gatland faces four massive selection calls at the start of the ultimate Lions challenge against the World champion All Blacks and he has to get every one of them right to give the team a chance of replicating the 1971 triumph. Gatland is under severe pressure as the first New Zealander to coach the Lions against the All Blacks and his every decision will have significant consequences and after a stuttering start to the tour, the Lions have the tools to beat the All Blacks – if they get the right ones onto the pitch.
The captaincy conundrum;
Sam Warburton has been a problem for Gatland ever since he was injured just before the tour. Warburton captained the Lions to a series success in Australia and remains Gatland’s default position when it comes to a leader of the Lions. However, Warburton is not fully fit having suffered yet more injury problems during the trip and that has allowed Peter O’Mahony to emerge as the favourite to lead the Lions in the first test. O’Mahony’s season has been shaped by injury to others and he only played in the win over England because Jamie Heaslip pulled out of the match just minutes before it started in Dublin. He took that chance brilliantly and his line out work and “dog of war” play at the break down makes him a key man in this first test and the captain. Warburton will be on the replacements bench because Sean O’Brien has been the kind of wrecking ball No7 the Lions need to upset the All Blacks from the start. Warburton will lead the Lions during the series but not in this first test.
George North or Elliot Daly?
The sight of North picking Israel Folau up and putting him over his shoulder in the test series with Australia remains a YouTube sensation and evidence of the raw power the Wales wing brings to the party. Daly cannot match that kind of physicality but possess a much wider range of rugby skills which enables him to play at centre, wing and full back at test level. He sounds like the perfect replacement for the Lions but has put in a strong case to start on the left wing because of on-going concerns over North’s defence. He can look like the QE2 when forced to turn and chase back for the ball and was guilty of allowing a try in that kind of situation against the Maori. Daly is the safer option and there is still the worry over North’s numerous incidents of concussion and they cannot afford to lose a starting back early in a match that will shake the New Zealand islands with the ferocity of the hits.
The mid-field puzzle;
Owen Farrell is fully fit after his thigh injury and must start at No10. That is the verdict of past Lions who recognise a player at the very top of his game while rival Johnny Sexton has yet to find the consistency that made him a key player in the 2013 series with Australia. The Farrell- Ben Te’o combination gets the Lions over the gain line early and also provides a defensive wall in the 10/12 channel that will be vital if they are to stop Sonny Bill Williams from imposing himself on the game. Te’o has grown into a fully-fledged test centre on this tour, delivering big hits in defence and an ability to punch holes and off-load which is the key to opening up the All Blacks defence. Sexton will be on the replacements bench allowing Farrell to be switched to inside centre if the Lions are chasing the game as this will offer a more subtle way of unlocking the defence but it is too risky to start with that attacking axis in this first test.
Second row; experience or world class raw talent
Alun Wyn Jones led the Lions in the final test in Australia and has been one of Gatland’s key men throughout his Welsh career. Respected by friend and foe, Wyn Jones is a hard-nosed forward who you can build a pack around. However, Maro Itoje is part of the European Cup winning Saracens team that ruled the line out war last season with hooker Jamie George succeeding with more than 90 per cent of his throws. By choosing Itoje to jump with George Kruis, Gatland is guaranteed ball to give the team an attacking platform from either a driving maul or quick possession to stretch the All Blacks defence. Itoje is also a brilliant tackler, getting in the faces of the defence with impressive speed. Wyn Jones can be the extra ballast from the bench the team may need to shore up the pack if they have established a winning position or to add extra grunt if they need to deliver a big finish up front in the final quarter.
as seen in Evening Standard