“We know we have got to be courageous coming here, we’ve got to be bold,” quipped Warren Gatland as he reflected on his British & Irish Lions selections for the first Test against the New Zealand All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park on Saturday.
If audacity is what Gatland is calling for from his players, the head coach has led from the front. Many predicted the New Zealand-born tactician’s hand ahead of Wednesday evening’s announcement, but there a number of unexpected talking points.
One criticism levelled against Gatland could be a one-dimensional pragmatic approach, yet the starting XV that will line up at Eden Park this weekend is nothing short of ambition and oozing with attacking threat.
Leigh Halfpenny and George North have been stalwarts for Wales under Gatland’s tutelage, but both are among headline omissions. Liam Williams, who had a slovenly start to the tour before playing himself into the team on Tuesday against the Chiefs, takes the No 15 jersey ahead of countryman Halfpenny, while North – a peripheral figure thus far – is dropped in favour of England’s Elliott Daly, who offers an electric dimension as well as a long-range goal-kicking threat while Anthony Watson takes to the opposite wing.
Rugby league convert Ben Te’o emerged on the international scene for England in the RBS Six Nations and has stormed his way into the heart of the Lions midfield with stellar performances this far and his showdown with fellow cross-code star Sonny Bill Williams will be a pivotal battle in deciding the outcome of this first Test.
— Blog4SportsRumble (@Blog4SR) June 23, 2017
The axis paring of Owen Farrell and Conor Murray against Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith will also be crucial – both combinations being similar in modus operandi – Farrell will be looking to seize the gaps, as will Barrett, while Smith and Murray will be looking to make the most of their creative kicking ability as well as snipe around the corners.
Rieko Ioane has burst onto scene and is a threat the Lions must keep tamed – easier said than done, though, after he turns Jack Nowell inside out and left him for dust while playing for the Blues.
Peter O’Mahony boasts the honour of captaining the Lions, a just reward after a challenging season on and off the field at Munster – battling injury before leading the club through the unprecedented death of head coach Anthony Foley. The Irish back-row has proven his character in abundance this year and being bestowed such an honour is truly fitting.
Unsurprisingly, Kieran Read has won his race against fitness to lead the All Blacks from No 8 and his uncompromising breakdown play and line-breaking ability is certainly to be revered.
Up front, there is an intriguing tussle set to be outplayed with the Lions pack with Jamie George and Tadgh Furlong, relatively new internationals, locking horns with the experience New Zealand front row, but the set piece will prove vitally important.
With this in mind, Maro Itoje’s dropping to the bench is hard to justify given he has been one of the best players in Europe for the past 18 months, but Gatland has placed his faith in Welsh talisman Alun Wyn Jones, who has started the last six Lions Tests and will be expected to dominate the set-piece with George Kruis.
“To be involved in a game of this magnitude is where all these players want to be, challenging against the best in the world,” Gatland reflected, but can his side overturn the almighty All Blacks?
TGT PREDICTION: New Zealand by 7. If the Lions are going to win a Test, this would probably be the one as they head into the three-match series with momentum, but I still see the All Blacks prevailing by a converted score.
We spoke to BoyleSport’s Lean Blanche for his take on the first Test.
“We have seen some surprises in the first XV but if anything that has seen the price come in from last week, they were bigger a few weeks ago but the recent performances have been better and the punters have not missed that.
“So at 10/3, a lot of people feel that if the Lions are to catch the All Blacks, it will be the first test – so the interest has been coming in.
“Warren Gatland seems to have picked this team on the whole on form, which is something he has been accused of not doing in the past. He is certainly going to live and die by his selection here.
“The handicap is ten points, and that is an interesting mark – I think that New Zealand will probably cover that, but the Lions defence is good and if the rain comes, then I would perhaps go with the Lions.”
We also got the opinion of Inside Rugby’s Stuart Watkins, who told us: “People were probably not expecting this side, but it is exciting and I think there is a lot of potential.
“I unfortunately don’t think we can win but I think it could be a lot tighter than some think. Our best hope is to pray for rain as those conditions would help so I think they will do a little rain dance on Friday night but I don’t think we will be strong enough in their back yard.
“I think there will be less than ten points in it.”