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Test favourites emerging but back three a major concern for the Lions

Murray Kinsella picks his Lions squad for the opening Test against the All Blacks.

Murray Kinsella reports from Dunedin

THE LIONS TEAM Warren Gatland names on Thursday morning in New Zealand will tell us plenty about his Test plans, but it won’t tell us everything.

Gatland is sure to hold a combination or two back for the first Test against the All Blacks, both to bring an element of surprise and to safeguard his team against the possible negative effects of losing to the Maoris.

British and Irish Lions Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien Gatland's starting back row? Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Lions boss has excellent options in almost every department, even if some contenders played themselves completely out of the equation in Tuesday’s defeat to the Highlanders.

While the front row, second row, back row, halfbacks and midfield positions are very competitive, the back three is now a major concern for Gatland.

So far, none of the back three players on this tour have truly shone.

Tommy Seymour was poor against the Highlanders, while Jack Nowell was very quiet. The Scot was solid in his other outing against the Provincial Barbarians, while Nowell struggled against the Blues.

Liam Williams got a yellow card in Auckland then looked a little hesitant against the Crusaders, while George North was also too timid in that game in Christchurch, totally failing to dominate the aerial game.

Elliot Daly has looked sharp in his brief appearances and may feature in the Tests, while Anthony Watson’s pace and evasion were exciting for the Lions against the Crusaders, albeit at fullback.

Leigh Halfpenny, meanwhile, was solid against the Blues and Stuart Hogg’s tour is already over.

Any prospect of Jared Payne emerging as the Lions’ Test fullback appeared to be severely damaged with his costly handling errors against the Highlanders in Dunedin.

Gatland and the Lions say they are not calling up a replacement player for Hogg just yet, but one of Simon Zebo or Keith Earls, both in Japan with Ireland, must be tempting right now.

While the make-up of the back three is a worry, Gatland has far more welcome headaches elsewhere.

Mako Vunipola was strong against the Crusaders and has the most rounded game of the three looseheads, while Jack McGrath and Joe Marler have tended to offer more scrum stability in recent seasons.

British and Irish Lions Jamie George George is a superb lineout thrower. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

At hooker, Jamie George’s dynamism makes him a strong Test contender, but Rory Best’s turnover skills and Ken Owen’s robust leadership cannot be discounted.

While Kyle Sinckler has been superb on this tour, offering power and aggression as well as fine skills, Tadhg Furlong remains the first-choice tighthead prop ahead of the Tests, Dan Cole having underperformed off the bench against the Highlanders.

Lineout specialist George Kruis and Welshman Alun Wyn Jones were superb in the second row against the Crusaders, while Maro Itoje is a potentially explosive replacement, but Iain Henderson is now back in the mix and Courtney Lawes was having a good tour until a nasty concussion against the Highlanders.

The back row of Peter O’Mahony, Taulupe Faletau and Sean O’Brien was superb last Saturday, and captain Sam Warburton is under huge pressure to be involved in the first Test in any capacity.

Conor Murray seems certain to start in the nine shirt, but the make-up of the midfield is a key issue.

Owen Farrell is many people’s favourite to start at out-half, though his combination with Johnny Sexton last weekend was fascinating. The Lions are insisting they have not trained as a 10-12 combo but they looked extremely slick working together.

Ben Te’o has had impressive moments at 12, and Gatland has talked him up regularly, while Robbie Henshaw is not out of the race yet either. But Farrell and Sexton are class acts at their best and their creative skills could be vital to unlocking the All Blacks.

Nonetheless, it would be a surprise if they were both named to start against the Maoris this weekend, and it may be that Gatland is holding them back for the first Test.

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Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton celebrate winning Sexton and Farrell looked superb together. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Jonathan Davies was unfortunately sidelined by concussion in the first half of that Crusaders game, but his form is sensational and he should get another shot to copper-fasten the 13 shirt this coming weekend.

When considering his Test side, Gatland will need to ensure that his place-kicker is in form and in that regard, Halfpenny offers the greatest reliability.

Nonetheless, it is around the back three that Gatland is likely to be worrying over the next week.

Murray Kinsella’s Lions squad for first Test:

15. Leigh Halfpenny
14. Anthony Watson
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Owen Farrell
11. George North
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Mako Vunipola
2. Jamie George
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Alun Wyn Jones (captain)
5. George Kruis
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Taulupe Faletau

Replacements:

16. Rory Best
17. Jack McGrath
18. Kyle Sinckler
19. Maro Itoje
20. CJ Stander
21. Rhys Webb
22. Ben Te’o
23. Elliot Daly

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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