Stander starts Lions tour as an 8, while Gatland praises Haskell's personality

With Billy Vunipola missing, Stander will compete with Taulupe Faletau for the eight shirt.

WARREN GATLAND SAYS CJ Stander will start the Lions tour as a number eight in the aftermath of Billy Vunipola withdrawing from the tour of New Zealand.

Stander and Wales’ Taulupe Faletau are now the primary options at number eight for Gatland, although Welshman Ross Moriarty will also compete for the eight shirt in Vunipola’s absence.

CJ Stander Stander will compete for the eight shirt. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Munster man Stander is a number eight for his province but he has been used as a blindside flanker by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt.

Gatland stressed that he is staying open-minded when it comes to the make-up of his Lions back row, but indicated that Stander will start the tour as a number eight.

“He gives us both options,” said Gatland this evening at Carton House. “I think he likes playing number eight and we know he can play six as well.

So we’ll probably look at him at that position [eight] to start the tour and knowing we’ve got the flexibility to play him at six as well. With a few other players we can move that back row around and look at combinations.

“It’s a nice position to be in because we’ve got that flexibility so people aren’t just pigeonholed into being a six, seven or eight. They can cover different roles for us.”

The loss of Vunipola is clearly a blow to the Lions’ chances of Test series success in New Zealand, with his form having been superb in recent weeks.

Gatland opted to call England’s James Haskell into the squad as Vunipola’s replacement, a decision that appears to have raised many eyebrows.

The Wasps back row has 75 England caps and has been selected by Eddie Jones, Stuart Lancaster, Martin Johnson and Brian Ashton at Test level.

Taulupe Faletau Faletau is already training with the Lions, while Stander remains at Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Gatland also pointed to Haskell’s stint playing Super Rugby for the Highlanders in New Zealand in 2012 as another of the reasons for selecting him.

“With James, he does cover all positions in the back row,” said Gatland. “He has played six, seven and eight. We could have looked at another eight as an option, but we felt we’ve got Faletau and Stander playing at eight, and Moriarty can cover us at eight.

“We think that Haskell gives us that flexibility. One of the other things is that he’s had experience touring and playing in New Zealand. That experience of being down in New Zealand and living in the South Island in Otago and Dunedin is significant.”

Gatland also cited Haskell’s personality and willingness to sacrifice himself for the team as strong positives when it came to calling up the Englishman.

And the Lions coach compared Haskell to former Munster and Ireland back row Alan Quinlan when underlining that he is the kind of player who could fight into contention for a Test spot.

He said, ‘I’ll carry the bag if needs be,’” said Gatland when recounting his phone conversation with Haskell to let him know he would be touring.

“That’s the kind of person he is, I think he’ll be good for us in terms of that experience. He does bring a personality to a squad and the experience he’s had with the number of caps he’s had for England,” said Gatland.

“He’s a guy that if you had the conversation with him that, ‘Maybe at the moment you’re not someone who potentially is going to be involved in the Tests,’ he would understand that.

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“But knowing him from a number of years ago he’s the kind of character, a little bit like Alan Quinlan, you could give him that role but he could work his way into fighting for a spot at some stage. It’s a great opportunity for him.”

James Haskell tackles Johnny Sexton Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Having now lost Vunipola and scrum-half Ben Youngs [for family reasons] from his initial 41-man squad, Gatland is hopeful that the Pro12 and Premiership finals this weekend won’t claim any of his Lions squad.

But the Kiwi is realistic about the fact that the Lions will lose more bodies before the tour even gets underway.

“The unfortunate thing is that we’re down two players from the original squad and there’s no doubt there could be a couple more next weekend. Given the history of the Lions, we plan to lose anywhere between six and 10 players, that’s the attrition.

“You’ve just got to move on.”

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Murray Kinsella

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