Murray Kinsella reports from Hamilton
THE SECOND ROW, the back row, the midfield and the left wing – there are a number of major selection calls ahead for Warren Gatland this week.
The Lions head coach will name his team for the first Test against the All Blacks at 8pm Irish time on Wednesday, and it will be fascinating to see which way these tight decisions go.
A front row of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong looks nailed on after destroying the Māori All Backs scrum, while George Kruis will take one of the lock slots and lead the lineout, with Taulupe Faletau at number eight.
Conor Murray is the starting scrum-half, while Leigh Halfpenny will be at fullback if he comes through the return-to-play protocols after a head injury, which the Lions expect him to do. Elsewhere, there is less certainty.
The second lock spot has been up for grabs, with Alun Wyn Jones the early favourite but Maro Itoje was impressively powerful against the Māori and has a pre-existing and proven relationship with Kruis.
Though his experience is attractive, Jones could even miss out on making the bench, with Iain Henderson arguably offering a more dynamic impact, as he showed in Rotorua.
It is very difficult to see Sean O’Brien being left out at openside after two superb performances in a row, meaning tour captain Sam Warburton may be limited to a bench role or even miss out on making the matchday squad.
Peter O’Mahony was impressive as captain last weekend and he now has a major chance of leading the Lions into the first Test, although a start for Jones in the second row would possibly bring him in line to captain the side too.
The danger for O’Mahony is that Gatland looks to squeeze Warburton into the back row at blindside, where he has played for Wales, but that back row combination has not been trialled and the Lions would be loath to break up the O’Brien, Faletau and O’Mahony trio.
At out-half, the return of Owen Farrell to fitness means he is the favourite to guide the Lions around the pitch, although Johnny Sexton’s excellent performance against the Māori All Blacks ensures Gatland has a headache here.
In 50 minutes against the Crusaders, Sexton and Farrell showed hugely promising signs as a 10-12 pairing, and it is one consideration for the Lions.
However, the feeling in Hamilton is that Ben Te’o has done enough to convince Gatland of his credentials to hammer the Lions over the gainline, offload, and manage the physical threat of Sonny Bill Williams.
Te’o has only started one Test match for England, against Italy, but he has been one of the stars of this tour and he could now partner the excellent Welshman Jonathan Davies in the midfield.
In the back three, the underperformance of George North last weekend is a concern for Gatland, and possibly opens the door for one of Liam Williams or Elliot Daly to sneak into the side after a big display against the Chiefs on Tuesday.
Still, Gatland and his coaches appear to have faith that North can deliver on the big occasion. Anthony Watson has had a sharp tour and looks like the starter on the right wing, having shown competitive aerial skills along with his pace and footwork.
With the team to be named on Wednesday evening Irish time, Gatland and his coaches have a couple of interesting meetings ahead.
Possible Lions team for first Test:
15. Leigh Halfpenny
14. Anthony Watson
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Ben Te’o
11. George North
10. Owen Farrell
9. Conor Murray
1. Mako Vunipola
2. Jamie George
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Maro Itoje
5. George Kruis
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Taulupe Faletau
16. Ken Owens
17. Jack McGrath
18. Kyle Sinckler
19. Iain Henderson
20. Sam Warburton
21. Rhys Webb
22. Johnny Sexton
23. Elliot Daly
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