Lions Test Team Comes Into Focus

We’ve been speculating for months about who will line up for the Lions against the mighty All Blacks, but Gatland’s announcement of the team to face the Blues on Wednesday gives the first big hint at the players who will take to the field on June 24.

But first a bit of background. None of the super rugby matches were ever going to be easy, but the game against the unbeaten Crusaders this Saturday has long been marked out as the toughest. Gatland will need to field his strongest team to have a chance – and even that might not be enough.

Secondly, we have Gatland’s pledge that every player in the 41 man squad will get a start in the first three games. Taken together, this tells us that the bulk of the test squad will be on show against the Crusaders, and therefore that most of those left out so far have a good chance of featuring against the All Blacks.

So who are the players who have yet to be handed a start? From front row to back three, they are:

Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, George Kruis, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and George North.

The backs, especially, have a Test match look about them.

Conor Murray, coming back from injury, is under pressure from Rhys Webb for a test spot, but he is widely acknowledged as one of the best scrum halves in the world and played a big role in Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks last year. His exclusion so far suggests that his class, experience and defensive qualities will see him picked above Webb on the big day. His Ireland teammate Johnny Sexton, by contrast, was way off the pace in Whangarei and has surely blown his chance at a test start, so it looks almost certain that Farrell will get the nod at 10.

Jonathan Davies has previous Lions experience as well as form behind him, having played a big role in the Scarlets’ pro 12 championship win. That leaves Ben Te’o, who performed well against the Barbarians, and Robbie Henshaw, who starts against the Blues, in a battle to partner him at inside centre.

Liam Williams – another Scarlets flier – was the form winger of the Six Nations championship and was named in the Pro 12 dream team this year. George North is somewhat lacking in form, but is the prototype Warrenball player and one of the biggest names in the squad. Assuming he turns up against the Crusaders, he will start on the 24th.

The forwards are a little more complicated.

It is perhaps in the ultra-competitive second row that we have the strongest indication yet of Gatland’s preference.

In particular, the back row selection is not that revealing: O’Mahony and O’Brien are the two who have yet to start, but they are unlikely to feature in the Test team. Taulupe Faletau is the obvious replacement for the injured Billy Vunipola – as well as one of the only players to make a mark in the opening tour fixture. He will presumably start alongside tour captain Sam Warburton. With Munster and Ireland star CJ Stander and form openside Justin Tipuric also in the squad, it’s hard to see O’Mahony or O’Brien finding a way into the Test team – unless Warburton has another poor performance against the Crusaders after his insipid start against the Barbarians.

It is perhaps in the ultra-competitive second row that we have the strongest indication yet of Gatland’s preference. George Kruis made an immediate impact off the bench on Saturday, is a lineout caller, and has a strong club/country partnership with guaranteed starter Maro Itoje. His exclusion for the Blues almost certainly means he will feature against the Crusaders, where he will battle Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones for a starting berth against the All Blacks.

In the front row, the absence of Vunipola and Furlong from the Blues starting line-up (as well as their form this year) suggests that they are in line for the two prop spots. Jamie George is a quality player who has ousted Schalk Brits from the Saracens’ 1st XV, but he has never started a Test match and is unlikely to do so in New Zealand. Rory Best, as Ireland captain in their victory over the All Blacks last year, is in contention for the no.2 shirt, but his performance against the Barbarians was lacklustre. Ken Owens was statistically the best hooker in the Six Nations and his award of the captaincy for Wednesday’s game suggests he will get the nod.

So, with all that taken into consideration, here’s the likely Lions 23 to face the All Blacks on June 24

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Ken Owens
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton (c)
  7. Justin Tipuric
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Liam Williams
  12. Ben Te’o/Robbie Henshaw
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. George North
  15. Stuart Hogg
  16. Jamie George
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Dan Cole
  19. Alun Wyn Jones
  20. CJ Stander
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Elliot Daly

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