Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
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Te'o at 12, the Irish contingent and more Lions team talking points
The quality of the Lions’ bench to face the NZ Provincial Barbarians indicates their depth.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

WARREN GATLAND HAS named his Lions team for the first game of the 2017 tour against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday [KO 8.35am Irish time, Sky Sports].

Check out the matchday 23 in full here.

Te’o at 12

Gatland has resisted any urge to start Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as a 10/12 combination in this opening fixture, with England’s Ben Te’o instead getting the first shot at the inside centre slot outside the Irishman.

Ben T'eo Dan Sheridan / INPHO Te'o is a physical player. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Auckland native Te’o has just eight caps for England under his belt, but Eddie Jones has been impressed by the former Leinster man’s physical impact and Gatland clearly likes it too.

While it is a little too early for us to rule out the possibility that Sexton and Farrell could start the Tests alongside each other, this selection perhaps indicates that Gatland is going to continue with his longstanding policy of fielding an imposingly physical player at 12.

Robbie Henshaw will be eyeing up the 12 jersey for the Tests in that case, but Te’o is a dark horse to watch on this tour. The 6’2″ centre is extremely difficult to stop, offloads superbly and has a mean streak in him that Gatland is sure to like.

Farrell has to be content with a place on the bench against the Provincial Barbarians, but it will be fascinating to note if he replaces Sexton at out-half or slots into the team outside him.

Irish contingent

Sexton will be delighted to get first crack at the 10 shirt and will be eager to make a big impression after an uncharacteristically poor display in his last game, Leinster’s Pro12 semi-final defeat to Scarlets.

Iain Henderson Dan Sheridan / INPHO Iain Henderson in his Lions blazer. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell has been in excellent form for some time now, meaning Sexton needs to lay down a big marker and remind Gatland of the quality that made him first-choice out-half on the 2013 tour of Australia.

Meanwhile, Rory Best and Iain Henderson are both straight into action in the Lions’ starting XV, having last played for Ulster on 29 April. As such, they have essentially had a mini pre-season to prepare for this game and should be in peak condition.

With Ken Owens still recovering from injury, Best has an opportunity to step up as a leader for Gatland’s side at hooker, while Henderson looks like the kind of player who could thrive on tour with high-quality players around him.

Tadhg Furlong is most people’s favourite to start the Tests at tighthead and is part of a brilliant bench for Saturday, while 23rd man Jared Payne is one to watch.

The Ulster back’s composure, skill level and defensive intelligence, whether at 13 or 15, could push him into contention for Test involvement.

Thrilling back three

There are exciting combinations throughout this Lions team, and there will be for every game, but the back three stands out in particular.

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Stuart Hogg Dan Sheridan / INPHO Hogg is expected to excite from fullback. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Stuart Hogg is the neutral’s choice to start the Tests at fullback and his thrilling brand of attacking rugby should be a key element in Saturday’s tour opener. The Scot is not the world’s greatest one-on-one tackler, however, and he has a point to prove in that regard.

Linking up with him in the Lions’ back three is international team-mate Tommy Seymour, who has the kind of strengths that could be useful against New Zealand. While also possessing finishing ability, the Glasgow Warrior is excellent in the air and defensively robust.

Completing the exciting unit for Saturday is England flyer Anthony Watson, whose pace and evasion are sure to do damage for the Lions. The 23-year-old is not in many predicted Lions Test XVs, but his out-and-out athletic prowess is appealing.

Warburton starts

Having last played on 7 April, captain Sam Warburton was always likely to need to get into the action as early as possible and he leads the Lions on Saturday.

Captain Sam Warburton accepts the Maori challenge on arrival Billy Stickland / INPHO Warburton accepts the Maori challenge on arrival in New Zealand yesterday. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

While the Wales openside still appears to have many detractors, he is a class act. His impact on the Six Nations – even if Wales were not at their best – was immense, for those willing to really look.

Warburton doesn’t have the same outrageous skill level as his fellow Welshman Justin Tipuric – on the bench for Saturday – but his breakdown work is exceptional and he brings the kind of robust physical edge that Gatland feels is a minimum requirement.

Warburton is part of an all-Welsh back row for Saturday, with surprise tourist Ross Moriarty at blindside and Taulupe Faletau getting the opening shot in the number eight shirt after Billy Vunipola pulled out.

With Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander having played for Munster just last weekend and Sean O’Brien having been easing his way into full training after a calf issue, the Irish back row trio must wait for their chances.

Bench indicates depth

With a squad of 41 of the best players in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, it’s unlikely that the Lions are going to be able to name a weak bench on this tour.

Owen Farrell on arrival Dan Sheridan / INPHO Farrell is part of a strong Lions bench. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

This first group of replacements underlines the depth in Gatland’s squad, however, with several world-class players among them. It’s almost certain that the Lions head coach and his backroom staff have a fair idea of their Test 23 as things stand, but so much will change in the coming weeks.

The sheer level of competition in this Lions squad should make it an utterly absorbing tour, particularly when the quality of the opposition is taken into account.

With that in mind, every single minute players get on the pitch counts and for the 23 selected for Saturday’s opener against the Provincial Barbarians, they will be keen to ensure that first impressions last.

Let the games begin.

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