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Biggar impresses as Gatland looks to make big call on Lions captaincy

James Ryan and Jonny Gray appear to be the strongest options for a squad call-up.

THE LOOK ON Alun Wyn Jones’ face said it all.

The Lions captain paused on his way off and found the reserve to tell Courtney Lawes to “f**king smash them” but the sense of resignation was ominous.

alun-wyn-jones-tadhg-furlong-rory-sutherland-and-josh-adams-celebrate-winning-with-the-vodafone-1888-trophy Alun Wyn Jones won't be touring with the Lions. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The replays suggested a dislocated shoulder as a Japanese player smashed into the breakdown and down onto Jones’ exposed left shoulder.

There was brief hope when the Welsh legend re-emerged looking more comfortable in his Lions tracksuit. His shoulder was back in, but his tour was over.

Before his squad have even boarded their flight to South Africa, Warren Gatland must make another big call and doesn’t have much time to do so. 

As he highlighted after today’s win over Japan, the Lions do have some other highly experienced figures and noted leaders in their squad.

Owen Farrell has been doing the job for England and was among the contenders initially, while Wales hooker Ken Owens is highly respected. Maro Itoje hasn’t been a skipper too often in recent years but he is a leader with his actions when he’s at his best. Ulster captain Iain Henderson had a good game today.

The reality is that coaches as good as Gatland prepare for this kind of situation and it’s likely that he knew who was next in line should something happen to Jones. He can’t have foreseen it happening before tomorrow’s departure to South Africa.

There is also the matter of replacing Jones as a second row in the squad. The decision in that regard will be intriguing. Scotland’s Jonny Gray and Ireland’s James Ryan appear to be the strongest candidates.

Ryan’s exclusion from the original squad was a shock in Ireland and he has played well since being left out, but it is a concern that Gatland has voiced doubts over Ryan’s physicality in Leinster’s clash with La Rochelle in the Champions Cup.

james-ryan James Ryan at Ireland training this week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ryan has played lots of his rugby as a tighthead lock – where Jones and Gray also play. In truth, Gatland has two excellent choices here to replace Jones. Jonny Hill, already in the touring squad, will have increased Test hopes after Jones’ injury.

It’s a brutal blow for Jones, denied a fourth tour, and a major setback for the Lions but the show must go on.

Their 28-10 win over Japan didn’t tell us a huge amount about the tour ahead. Jamie Joseph’s side performed creditably after their long hiatus from Test rugby, underlining just how important it is that Japan are included at the top table of the sport.

The Lions showed some promise via their strong maul, scrum, a few glimpses of attacking quality, and several excellent individual performances. 

The seven Irish players all impressed, with Jack Conan, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Beirne and Bundee Aki perhaps best of the lot, while Wales out-half Dan Biggar picked up the player of the match award for his rounded performance. 

His pass for Beirne’s try was a highlight, while he showed further creativity with a chip kick that nearly resulted in another Lions score. There was tactical kicking quality at times from the Northampton Saints man and he was 100% off the tee.

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Biggar nailed this first audition in the number 10 shirt, very much continuing the excellent form he has been in this season. 

It was fascinating to see Owen Farrell introduced at inside centre, where he played the two most recent Lions Tests and usually plays for England. He is an out-half with Saracens but there is obviously a strong possibility of Gatland using a Biggar-Farrell-Henshaw combination in the 10, 12, and 13 shirts for the Test series.

dan-biggar Biggar impressed against Japan. Source: ©INPHO

Aki, of course, put his hand up in the best possible fashion against the Japanese, his superb carry laying the foundation for Josh Adams’ opening try before his defensive qualities shone through with two breakdown turnovers and choke tackle turnover.

Gatland has options in his midfield and, even after the loss of the talismanic Jones, in most places within his squad.

Justin Tipuric’s shoulder issue is another big concern and it remains to be seen if his tour is also over, but there is quality across the Lions’ back row and a few very good players who aren’t even in the squad at this stage.

So while it will hard for Gatland not to curse the bad luck of losing his skipper before the show even really got on the road, he will make some quick decisions and push on towards the meetings with the Springboks.

The Lions are due to confirm their decisions tomorrow morning.

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Murray Kinsella

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