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Gatland given last-minute food for thought in the Lions' back three

Elliot Daly is an interesting option for the left wing but George North has pedigree.

Murray Kinsella reports from Hamilton

THIS LIONS TOUR had been waiting for a convincing collective performance from a Lions back three and it took until game six for that to arrive.

Liam Williams, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly were impressive against a disappointing Chiefs side, as they limited the Kiwi side’s attacking kicking game and added some class going forward in a 34-6 victory.

Elliot Daly with Finlay Christie Daly had some good moments against the Chiefs. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The only problem for this trio is that their performance came just four days before the first Test, with much of head coach Warren Gatland’s thinking around his starting XV against the All Blacks already having been done.

That said, there was a slight doubt with the back three.

Leigh Halfpenny is the likely starter at fullback when Gatland names his side at 8pm Irish time tomorrow, while Anthony Watson is expected to line out on the right wing after a handful of sharp performances.

George North was one of the favourites to start on the wing before the tour began and remains the smart bet to occupy the 11 shirt, but Tuesday night’s win over the Chiefs gives Gatland plenty of food for thought.

He and his coaching staff have one final selection meeting on Wednesday before copper-fastening their Test match 23, and the back three is likely to spark lively debate.

“Someone like Jack Nowell, it just hadn’t happened for him in the first couple of games,” said Gatland after the win over the Chiefs. “He is a player who is prolific in terms of getting his hands on the ball. He showed that when he scored his tries.

“I was pleased to see him play well and I thought Elliot looked sharp and Liam too. It was a combination that looked pretty dangerous and pretty potent.

“There were a few times in the first half when we were a little bit lateral with the ball, but we were much better in the second half. We showed nice things out there and scored some great tries.”

George North with Jordan Taufua and Israel Dagg George North remains the favourite on the left wing. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

If we are to read into players’ minutes against the Chiefs, then Daly being replaced with a quarter of the game still to go looked instructive.

That may simply be to save some of his energy for the 23 shirt, but the England wing is hopeful that he has done enough to convince Gatland.

“It would be amazing,” said Daly when asked about the prospect of a Test start. “At the start of the year I didn’t think I had a chance. If I got anywhere near it, it would be unbelievable.”

Asked if the 60-minute limit on Daly’s involvement had been a hint that the Wasps man would be involved against the All Blacks, Gatland smiled.

“Possibly,” said the Lions boss.

Daly’s pace and footwork are attractive for the Lions, but Williams also showed his skills in that department on Tuesday from fullback and Nowell’s ludicrous work rate is married to superb attacking qualities.

But as important for the Lions back three is defensive strength, with the All Blacks posing a kick-pass-run triple threat. Even in that sense, the back three against the Chiefs delivered.

“We had a massive emphasis in the week with Sanjay and Nowellsey about limiting their attacking kicking game,” said Daly.

Jack Nowell Nowell scored two tries against the Chiefs. Source: Photosport/Bruce Lim/INPHO

“I think we did that tonight and both Sanjay and Nowellsey read it very well. All in all, it was a good performance by the back three.”

At least Gatland has more options now and some of those options have a bit of form behind them.

The back three had perhaps been the most disappointing area of the Lions tour so far, but the win over the Chiefs showed that there is life in the wide men yet.

Now come the big final decisions for Gatland. The back three players will accept his calls and attempt to help each other prepare for the great demands of the All Blacks.

“We are actually very tight, we have a lot of respect for each other, but we do understand that every time you get that chance to play with the Lions shirt, you get the chance to put your hand up for selection,” said Nowell.

“It hasn’t come a lot for the wingers – it’s been wet and drizzly – but the main thing is we are pushing each other, helping each other. We’d rather come back as a 3-0 winning team than fighting for position. Whoever gets the nod gets the nod and we’ll help him.”

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Murray Kinsella

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