Lions ready to roar

The warm-ups are over. The first Test against the All Blacks beckons for the British and Irish Lions on Saturday. Auckland awaits. The Eden Park fortress where the almighty New Zealand have not lost since 1994 will provide the backdrop for the opening foray of what will be the Lions’ greatest challenge.

But who will be making the starting XV? That is the question on everybody’s lips.

Many have attempted to stake their claim over the course of six preliminary outings, but Warren Gatland – as ever – is keeping his cards close to his chest.

In all honesty, the pack is the easiest part of the side to pick.

Up front, Gatland will almost certainly opt for his most in-form operators, with Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadgh Furlong being the outstanding candidates.

The Saracens’ second-row partnership of the imperial Maro Itoje and George Kruis look set to get the nod, while captain Sam Warburton will most likely be joined by countryman Toby Falteau and Irish ball-carrier Sean O’Brien in a potent looking back row.

Behind the scrum offering much more scope for debate, though, with numerous options at Gatland’s disposal as he aims to take the scalp of his country of birth.

A debate over a potential Jonny Sexton/Owen Farrell 10/12 combination lingers, but at this stage it should not be considered at much length. Sexton’s recent injury record and lack of quality thus far on the tour leaves him susceptible to being targeted by the All Blacks defence – while not denying his quality, form is significantly lacking.

Meanwhile, England’s unknown quantity Ben Te’o has been one of the most exceptional discoveries of the tour – furthermore, his physicality in midfield much better suits Gatland’s preferred mode of attack.
All this considered, you can expect Conor Murray to join Farrell in an axis pairing, while Te’o is likely to be handed a starting jersey alongside either Jonathan Davies of Wales or Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw.

Jack Nowell’s excellent outing against the Chiefs on Tuesday means his starting berth is almost certainly nailed on, while George North and Elliott Daly both have much to offer on the alternate side for Gatland.

The loss of Stuart Hogg is rightly seen as significant, but both Liam Williams and Anthony Watson have much attacking threat to offer. Although, don’t be surprised to see Gatland place his trust in the reliable hands of Leigh Halfpenny.

Who will make the final cut, we wait and see, but one thing is for sure, Saturday’s first Test promises to be a humdinger of an affair.

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