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Billy Stickland/INPHO Ireland's Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan will hope for the nod.
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Take your pick: Gatland sets about selecting his Lions Test 23
There are big calls to confirm across the starting XV.

IF HE WAS spoofing, Warren Gatland did a good impression of a head coach who wasn’t sure of his starting XV and bench for next weekend.

The Lions boss said last night that he and his coaching staff have several tough decisions ahead of them as they set about selecting the group of 23 men who will take on the world champions Springboks in their first Test of three next weekend.

Gatland and co. will look to finalise their decisions today and the head coach admitted that he had as many conundrums as those of us on the outside who will debate this subject over the coming days.

“There are going to be some tight calls with regard to the make-up of the back three,” said Gatland.

He has watched Duhan van der Merwe and Josh Adams run in tries galore in recent weeks, while he knows all about the longstanding quality of 2017 Test starting fullback Liam Williams.

Stuart Hogg has been unlucky with his period of Covid isolation but has a superb kicking game, leadership credentials, and counter-attacking class from fullback. Meanwhile, 20-year-old wing Louis Rees-Zammit has lightning in his legs.

“Also the loose forwards and how that mix is going to look,” continued Gatland.

Again, there are so many ways the Lions can go in their back row. Taulupe Faletau has been the long-term favourite at number eight but Jack Conan has put his hand up there. 

warren-gatland Billy Stickland / INPHO Gatland has never been afraid to make big decisions. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne offer lock-flanker hybrid options at blindside, while Tom Curry and Hamish Watson are warriors on the openside. That last pair could play together, while Josh Navidi has combative qualities and Sam Simmonds is dynamic. 

There are two big calls to make in the front row, with Tadhg Furlong looking nailed-on as the starter at tighthead.

Luke Cowan-Dickie gave a dominant audition at hooker against the Stormers last night, but Jamie George and Ken Owens both have major claims in that position. Loosehead prop Wyn Jones was very impressive against South Africa A, yet the experienced Mako Vunipola and Scotland’s Rory Sutherland have real quality too.

Conor Murray and Dan Biggar are most people’s first-choice halfbacks but Ali Price and Owen Farrell are in contention too. 

Farrell could be in the 12 shirt, of course, although Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly will hope last night was a chance for them to get an understanding of each other before a Test start in the midfield next weekend. Bundee Aki and Chris Harris have other ideas.

“We’ll go through everyone and look at the starting XV,” said Gatland. “And also it’s important that we consider the impact the bench will have as well. That’s the next 48 or 72 hours where we’ll go through that process. It will be some robust debate I would presume.”

Alun Wyn Jones is a key piece in the puzzle. If he starts alongside Maro Itoje, it will be as captain. If he doesn’t start, Gatland has to pick a skipper and a starting lock.

alun-wyn-jones Billy Stickland / INPHO Jones made his return last night. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Wales lock Adam Beard has impressed on tour but Iain Henderson has been in excellent form all season too, while Jonny Hill offers a fair bit of grunt too.

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“I thought he got a few shots on and defended well, a couple of touches in there as well,” said Gatland of Jones after his 26-minute outing off the bench last night on his return from a shoulder injury.

“I know how hard he has worked over the last year or so, he was desperate to make the Lions. In 2017, he probably wasn’t at his best but has really been exceptional in the way he has prepared for this tour.

“It was a shame he picked up the injury but it’s great to have him back. We’ll have that discussion about whether there’s a role for him as a starter, bench player, or not involved next week.”

While most of us came into this Lions tour with an idea of what we viewed as the probable starting Test XV, Gatland insists he attempts to steer clear of that kind of thinking.

“I don’t go in with preconceived ideas,” he said. “I let the media and the other rugby experts [think that way]. They all have their own opinions and they are all very, very different from each other.

“I don’t have any issues with that. I try not to go in with any thoughts that this is potentially a Test side.

“I try to let that develop and the players to have that opportunity to put their hands up. Sometimes it’s about looking at the players and their numbers and the stats and sometimes it’s about having a gut feeling about certain players and combinations.”

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