AUCKLAND, New Zealand — So this is what Warren Gatland had up his sleeve. Predictable Gatland? Not a bit of it.
Just when you thought you knew what the Test 23 was going to be, Gatland plucks this rabbit out of the hat. George North? Gone. Leigh Halfpenny? Benched. Sam Warburton, the tour captain? Benched.
Liam Williams has been selected ahead of Leigh Halfpenny at full-back for the British & Irish Lions in their first Test against the All Blacks.
Kieran Read returns from injury to captain the All Blacks in their first Test of the series against the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on Saturday.
It is the most nerve-wracking time in a British & Irish Lions tour but, with the team for the first Test named, the noises coming from the Lions’ camp suggest they are confident they can win.
Make no mistake about it, these are big calls from Gatland, but positive ones. Maro Itoje, who played so brilliantly against the Maori All Blacks, will be there for impact from among the replacements. Alun Wyn Jones, who will be the calm head amidst the madness of the first Test, takes his place alongside George Kruis in the second row.
But this a team picked on form. It is a selection with its roots in set-piece superiority, pressure from the forwards and counterattacking ability. The back three are quick but can also kick well and assured under the high ball. Similarly, the pack will be looking to turn over the All Blacks if opportunities arise but will also be marshalled with the Andy Farrell press.
For so long it looked like Halfpenny would be at fullback. But despite his assured kicking display against the Maori, Gatland has gone with the more helter-skelter option of Williams. Then there is the absence of North on the wing. Gatland likes his wingers to go searching for the ball – 15 touches a game are optimum – which is why Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson are picked. They are busy wingers, the type who are constantly popping up in midfield, searching for a break.
The selection of Ben Te’o at inside centre is based on go-forward, but also his ability to offload. Faced with the Sonny Bill Williams, the man who would challenge Harry Houdini with sleights of hand, the Lions have done their best to match fire with fire. Te’o likes to find gaps, he likes to take the ball up and carry hard, but then flicks the ball out of the back.
Jonathan Davies, at outside centre, has enjoyed promising breaks on the tour and has built a solid partnership with Te’o but they will be reliant on the half-backs to keep the game ticking.
Warren Gatland opted for the more “helter-skelter” Liam Williams at fullback. Phil Walter/Getty Images
Owen Farrell was an injury doubt heading into this Test after being withdrawn from the Maori match but he was clearly being wrapped in cotton wool. His partnership with Conor Murray is key but both are on form.
In the pack, the decision to leave Warburton on the bench is bold from Gatland; it shows little room for sentiment when it comes to the Lions. Sean O’Brien has played better than the tour captain so far, and so then he goes for the quiet man from Munster, Peter O’Mahony, to lead the team out.
The decision to leave Itoje on the bench is also intriguing. He is clearly picked there to provide impact but there will be a school of thought keen to hear the logic behind leaving one of the Lions’ best players among the replacements, rather than enjoying his talents for the full 80. This seems to be based around set-piece security and Jones and Kruis provide that.
The bench will be charged with providing impact but, with Halfpenny and Johnny Sexton the backs’ cover, they look to be the players to come on and close the match out. Gatland clearly feels the starting team are the ones to build a score. It promises to be a fascinating occasion in Eden Park.
Last Friday Steve Hansen asked Gatland what he had up his sleeve. The answer is this selection.
These are bold, positive calls from the Lions coach. He wants to take the game to the All Blacks, he wants his Lions to attack, but this is a team built around the forwards. They will be tasked with shutting down New Zealand, suffocating them like the tourists have done to the Crusaders and the Maori. Expect it to be bloody, confrontational and thrilling.
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Gatland goes bold and positive with Lions team
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