First Test selection gamble
Gatland hoping big calls pay off against All Blacks
As someone who doesn’t shirk from controversy, Warren Gatland is no stranger to making big decisions as head coach of the British and Irish Lions.
Four years ago he dropped the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll for the deciding Test against Australia, the omission bringing howls of derision from many quarters.
It was the first time the Irishman, a veteran of four tours, had been dropped and it signalled the end of his Lions career.
Gatland’s decision was vindicated, however, with the tourists winning the Sydney showdown to carve another niche in Lions folklore.
Fast forward to 2017 and the head coach has again dumbfounded many with his selection for the first Test against the All Blacks on Saturday.
His biggest call has come at full-back with Welshman Liam Williams preferred to his dependable and experienced fellow-countryman Leigh Halfpenny, whose goal-kicking expertise would surely have been a potent weapon.
Williams caught the eye in the victory over the Chiefs on Tuesday and Gatland has rewarded him with a starting berth at Eden Park.
Eyebrows were also raised at the omission of England’s Maro Itoje, who had been widely expected to start in the second row in Auckland, the experience of former skipper Alun Wyn Jones winning him the nod.
Wasps’ Elliot Daly also played his way into the starting XV with his display in the 34-6 win over the Chiefs at the expense of George North, who doesn’t even make the bench.
“The win against the Chiefs was extremely important for the squad and some players played themselves into the side,” said Gatland.
Choosing to leave tour captain Sam Warburton out of his starting line-up, Gatland has turned to forward Peter O’Mahony to lead his side against the reigning world champions as the Lions attempt to end a 46-year wait for a Test series win against the All Blacks.
With six warm-up matches before the first Test, the Lions’ schedule had been labelled as ‘suicidal’ by some former players.
Despite the intensity of the build-up, the tourists have managed to create some important momentum ahead of Eden Park with recent wins over the Maori All Blacks and the Chiefs.
“I think we’ve played some lovely rugby. We struggled at the start of the tour, but we’ve scored nine to three tries in the last four games,” added New Zealander Gatland.
“I can’t fault the players if we’re getting some success by dominating up front.
“We’re not going to be talked into playing Barbarian-type rugby when we’ve got certain weapons we can use to our advantage, and that’s being smart about how you play.
“Hopefully we can be strong at set-piece and strong defensively at the weekend, and when the opportunities arise we can get in behind the All Blacks and finish the opportunities we create.”
The Lions will have a strong bench to call upon with the likes of Itoje, Warburton, Halfpenny and Johnny Sexton likely to be used at some stage of the proceedings.
Eight first-time Test Lions have been named, including hooker Jamie George who hasn’t started a Test for England.
Six Nations champions England provide seven players in the starting XV, with four from Wales and Ireland.
There are no Scotland players in the 23-man match day squad, with Glasgow Warriors’ Tommy Seymour entitled to feel the most unfortunate to miss out.
Gatland admitted the team selection meeting with his coaches provided “good healthy debate” and time will tell whether he has called it correctly.
“We have picked a side based on form with a lot of players putting their hands up,” he said.
“To beat the All Blacks you have to be courageous and play some rugby. You have to score tries and we have picked a team capable of doing that.”
Kick-off on Saturday is 8.35am UK time. The second Test takes place in Wellington on Saturday, 1 July, before the teams return to Eden Park seven days later.
Lions team: L Williams (Wales); A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), B Te’o (England), E Daly (England); O Farrell (England), C Murray (Ireland); M Vunipola (England), J George (England), T Furlong (Ireland); AW Jones (Wales), G Kruis (England); P O’Mahony (capt, Ireland), S O’Brien (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: K Owens (Wales), J McGrath (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), M Itoje (England), S Warburton (Wales), R Webb (Wales), J Sexton (Ireland), L Halfpenny (Wales).