Warren Gatland will this week make some of the biggest decisions of his career, and it could go a long way to deciding if the British and Irish Lions go on to beat the All Blacks for the first time in 46 years.
Gatland will on Thursday announce his squad that will face New Zealand in the first Test at Auckland’s Eden Park, and while the bulk of the team looks to have been decided, he has four key problem areas that remain a mystery.
The Kiwi has been keen to keep some of his tactical decisions up his sleeve, but he will no longer be able to contain those come this weekend when the much-anticipated Test series finally gets underway.
With the front-row looking nailed on the be formed of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong , Gatland can at least tick off one area in his side, with Jack McGrath, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler likely to be named among the replacements.
The half-back pairing also looks like a done deal, with Conor Murray a certainty to start at scrum-half while Owen Farrell is likely to get the nod in the 10 shirt, having recovered from injury this week. However, that’s about as sure at Gatland can be right now, and the head coach will spend the next 48 hours ahead of his squad selection mulling over some of the biggest decisions of his career.
What looked to be a forgone conclusion was blown wide open when Maro Itoje put in a man of the match performance in the weekend victory over the Maori All Blacks. George Kruis looks like the one certainty at lock, with Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones fighting over the other position. Itoje is the form lock in Europe after a dominant second half of the season, but Jones brings a wealth of experience as well as a physicality to match his younger teammate. If Itoje gets the nod, Jones is likely to be on the replacements, although Iain Henderson has given Gatland plenty of food for thought with his last two performances and should he enjoy another strong outing against the Chiefs on Tuesday, the Ulster lock could force his way in ahead of Jones.
British and Irish Lions player ratings vs Maori All Blacks
The Lions look like they will head into the first Test without their tour captain, Sam Warburton, in what would be an incredibly bold move by Gatland. Warburton came into the tour recovering from a knee injury, and his recovery was not helped when he picked up a knock to his ankle in the first match in New Zealand. Peter O’Mahony looks to have earned the blindside flanker role and, potentially, the Test captaincy after leading the side against the Maori, while Sean O’Brien’s form is likely to see him selected ahead of Warburton, with Taulupe Faletau a certainty at No 8. This would likely leave Warburton among the replacements, although the versatile CJ Stander will also have hopes of a place in the matchday squad.
Sam Warburton scored a try for the Lions and looks ready to start the first Test against the All Blacks ()
It looks as though Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies will be selected for the first Test in the centre, the former due to his three impressive performances since touching down in New Zealand and the latter for his strong showing against the Maori, not to mention his fantastic end-of-year form with the Scarlets. However, Gatland may yet spring a surprise by naming Farrell at inside centre in order to bring in Johnny Sexton at fly-half. If he does so, Gatland will need to make the tricky decision to select either Te’o or Davies at 13, while Jonathan Joseph’s omission from the squad against the Chiefs also suggests that the England centre could be in the mix.
Two of the three positions look to have been filled by Anthony Watson and Leigh Halfpenny on the right wing and at full-back respectively. However, the left wing berth remains wide open, partly due to George North’s lack of form on the tour and partly due to the fact that we have not seen an awful lot of Elliot Daly or Liam Williams. The pair will get one last run-out against the Chiefs on Tuesday, and don’t be surprised to see whoever performs better out of the two hauled off early and starting the Test. Then again, Gatland has faith in North, and if he can rekindle his 2013 form, the head coach would be a fool to leave him out.
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