Warren Gatland has picked just four of the players who started in the British & Irish Lions 17-13 defeat against South Africa ‘A’ a week ago for Saturday’s first of three Tests against the world champion Springboks, and it is not the team many legends of Lions rugby expected, writes Mark Keohane.
But it is still a damn good team.
There was plenty talk a week ago that Gatland was holding something back in the Lions loss against a team that was more Springbok than South Africa ‘A’. Now we know that what he was holding back was 11 players!
England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach and former Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward, in making his starting XV choice, picked just six of Gatland’s starting team. The 2017 Lions captain (for the series against the All Blacks) Sam Warburton picked eight players, when compared to Gatland’s choice and Scott Gibbs, a veteran of three Lions tours, had nine players in his XV, who have made Gatland’s first Test XV.
What Gatland has settled with has stunned three men very familiar with Lions rugby.
There are others from last Wednesday’s squad who will be involved in the match 23, but the Test team is an overall from that outing and it is also the first time this starting XV will play together in what will be the sixth match of the tour and the seventh of the past month, if you include the 28-10 win against Japan at Murrayfield in Scotland.
Before this tour started, the general sentiment was Taulupe Faletau would start at No 8, that England’s Jamie George would start at hooker, that Owen Farrell would be the first choice inside centre, that Josh Adams seemed a certainty to start on the wing, Duhan van der Merwe was an outsider to make the squad, Liam Williams seemed to be a Gatland favourite from his days coaching Wales and previous Lions tours, English Premiership stand out Sam Simmonds was expected to be in the mix, that Hamish Watson was the most talked about flank option and that Conor Murray had locked in the No 9 jersey, given he was immediately picked to replace the then injured Alun Wyn Jones as the tour captain.
None of these selections have materialised and Gatland, in every one of the tour and warm-up matches, has given nothing away in his Test team thinking. This team has never played together and only four started against SA ‘A’ and only seven started against the DHL Stormers.
Gatland has opted for the power option of Van der Merwe on the left wing and the experience of England’s Anthony Watson on the right wing. He has immediately drafted back Jones, who joined the tour last week after initially being ruled out because of a dislocated shoulder, suffered just six minutes into the match against Japan.
Ireland’s Jack Conan started the tour outside of the top three No 8s, while Scottish scrumhalf Ali Price has leapfrogged Murray and Wales’s Gareth Davies.
‘In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in,’ said Gatland.
England, with six players, have the most in the starting XV. Scotland, Ireland and Wales all have three players respectively.
B&I Lions – 15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland), 14 Anthony Watson (England), 13 Elliot Daly (England), 12 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), 11 Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland), 10 Dan Biggar (Wales), 9 Ali Price (Scotland), 8 Jack Conan (Ireland), 7 Tom Curry (England), 6 Courtney Lawes (England), 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), 4 Maro Itoje (England), 3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), 1 Wyn Jones (Wales).
Substitutes: 16 Ken Owens (Wales), 17 Rory Sutherland (Scotland), 18 Kyle Sinckler (England), 19 Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), 20 Hamish Watson (Scotland), 21 Conor Murray (Ireland), 22 Owen Farrell (England), 23 Liam Williams (Wales).
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