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Dublin: 4 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019
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Gatland's surprises, POM's honour, Itoje unlucky and more Lions talking points

Ben Te’o and Jamie George have only one Test start between them but their rise continues.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

WARREN GATLAND HAS named his Lions match day 23 to face the All Blacks in Saturday’s first Test at Eden Park in Auckland [KO 8.35am Irish time, Sky Sports].

Check out the squad in full here.

O’Mahony’s achievement

A replacement for Ireland’s final game of the Six Nations, sprung into action at the last minute after Jamie Heaslip was injured, and now the Lions captain.

Peter O'Mahony celebrates winning Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There haven’t been too many bolters in terms of the Lions’ captaincy, but few saw this coming before the tour of New Zealand got underway. That O’Mahony was going to make the squad was even in some doubt, but he is a player Warren Gatland has always respected.

He is a player the Lions squad respect too and even with Alun Wyn Jones – a Test captain in 2013 – included in the starting XV for Saturday, O’Mahony is Gatland’s choice as captain.

With the blindside flanker having come through the ranks at Cork Con, PBC and Munster, there are many, many people who will take serious pride in O’Mahony’s achievement.

He follows in the footsteps of Irish greats like Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Willie John McBride – he’s the 11th Irish Lions Test captain – but you just know that O’Mahony won’t be content simply to join them in being a Lions Test captain.

The real honour for him is being a winning Lions Test captain.

Williams and Daly surprises

Gatland warned us that he had selection surprises up his sleeve and though Steve Hansen mocked him for it, the Lions boss has followed through on his word.

Liam Williams Source: Photosport/Bruce Lim/INPHO

Leigh Halfpenny was expected to start at fullback, particularly having kicked 12 from 12 off the tee on this tour, but his Welsh compatriot Liam Williams is given the nod there instead.

Williams was superb on Wales’ tour of New Zealand last summer, when he showed his counter-attacking class and ability to break the Kiwis’ defence, and there was more of it on Tuesday night against the Chiefs.

Gatland had strongly suggested that he saw Williams as a wing – throwing us off the scent – but this is a brave and attacking selection for the Lions.

Elliot Daly is on the left wing in another selection that should excite Lions fans, as the out-of-form George North misses out completely. Englishman Daly has pace and footwork that allows him to beat defenders one-on-one, while he can also fire over long-range penalty shots at goal if required.

Including Williams and Daly in the back three along with Anthony Watson provides the Lions with real threat out wide in possession, as well as a counter-attacking edge, and Gatland will feel they can do damage to the All Blacks’ defence.

Itoje misses out

Maro Itoje must count himself dearly unlucky to miss out on making the starting Test XV, with Jones preferred alongside George Kruis and Itoje therefore limited to a bench impact role.

Maro Itoje Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Itoje has had a sensational season and was simply superb against the Maori All Blacks last weekend, offering relentless physical power and energy.

That’s not to slight Jones, however, who has led the Lions to Test victory before and is a brilliant player – as he showed throughout the Six Nations and in particular against Ireland.

Jones’ lineout skills, tackling around the fringes, unfussy ball carrying, maul excellence and ruck clearing are all attributes for the Lions. It would be a major surprise if he doesn’t perform yet again.

Expect to see Itoje – who covers blindside flanker as well – on early in this first Test, with his impact sure to be an important factor in the outcome.

Te’o and George’s rise

The focus is understandably elsewhere, but Ben Te’o and Jamie George’s rises are also remarkable.

Ben Te'o makes a break Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

George was always going to be a candidate to start these Tests, but he still hasn’t actually started one for England. That’s because Dylan Hartley has been captaining Eddie Jones’ side, and it doesn’t for a second reflect on George’s quality.

He is a European champion with Saracens and his lineout throwing accuracy, powerful scrummaging, mobility and energy on kick chase and excellent tackle technique will all be vital to the Lions on Saturday.

Te’o, meanwhile, has a single Test start under his belt and it came against Italy. The England international was still playing rugby league the last time the Lions toured, but his inclusion is difficult to argue with.

Te’o has been one of the stars of this tour of New Zealand, with his footwork, balance and power making him so hard to defend against. While his passing range is not at the top level, the Worcester Warriors man is superb at offloading out of contact.

He will be tasked with halting Sonny Bill Williams’ impact on the gainline too, and his rise may not be over just yet.

The bench

Ken Owens – such a skillful and tough player – is a wise choice as back-up hooker, with Rory Best’s lineout wobbles against the Chiefs copper-fastening that in Gatland’s mind.

Sam Warburton dejected after the game Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Jack McGrath has been good off the bench on this tour too and fully deserves the honour of being a Test Lion, while Kyle Sinckler will likely bring a hell of a lot of energy.

Some supporters don’t like the Englishman’s open aggression towards opponents, but his Lions team-mates love it and feed off his energetic approach.

Itoje’s impact is beyond doubt, although many have argued against the inclusion of tour captain Sam Warburton as a replacement. It’s worth remembering that ‘impact’ doesn’t just mean the ability to come on and break the defence down.

That’s not Warburton’s game directly, but he is a class act even if he is short of his best form and match sharpness. The Welshman is a major breakdown influence, both in attack and defence, and is muscular and intelligent around all the contact areas.

CJ Stander is certainly unlucky to miss out given his dynamism, but Gatland is backing Warburton to be calm and clinically effective when used late on against the All Blacks.

Rhys Webb’s sniping threat around the fringes is useful if the Lions are chasing the game in the second half, while Johnny Sexton will allow Gatland to push Owen Farrell to inside centre and give the Lions dual playmakers if they need to seek more width in their attack.

Finally, Leigh Halfpenny’s inclusion as a replacement has raised eyebrows, but again it’s not just about attacking impact off the bench. The Welshman is perhaps the best positional back three defender in this Lions squad, while his ability to slot penalty shots might come in useful.

Other players might have offered more attacking spark, but Gatland will be entirely comfortable with Halfpenny in reserve.

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Murray Kinsella

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