Gatland picks eight Lions test debutants
Jamie Heaslip holds off challenge of Wales’s Toby Faletau for Australia game
Warren Gatland today unveiled a largely predictable starting team for the Lions’ first test against the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium. Sam Warburton will captain a strong, in-form side in relatively good nick at the end of an arduous season which features eight Lions test debutants and two former Lions captains in Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.
“We went through dues processes and had a good discussion about the team,” said Gatland in front of a much increased media horde.
“The make up of the loose forwards was one (of the tight calls), the make up of the front row was a big discussion as well, and that combination in the midfield, too.”
“A lot of players were rewarded for their performance last Saturday against the Waratahs as well. That was an extremely positive performance and a lot of the side is made up from that team that played the Waratahs.”
Once George North had been passed fit (albeit there must be a risk of a soft tissue injury of a recurrence of a hamstring strain) the back-line pretty much picked itself, with the Welsh outside three behind the only two centres left standing, namely the in-form Jonathan Davies and O’Driscoll.
Mike Phillips and Jonathan Sexton, one of eight Lions test debutants in the team, were the probably half-back pairing on departure from Heathrow, and nothing has changed since then.
The selection of Alex Corbisiero, a technically superior scrummager, ahead of Mako Vunipola makes sense, with the latter to add real impact off the bench.
Likewise Tom Youngs, who has been in better form than Richard Hibbard, and who will have a good understanding with Tom Croft, the eventual choice ahead of a posse of in-form back-rowers alongside Jamie Heaslip and Sam Warburton.
Pairing Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell was a no brainer, although you’d hope that the former didn’t peak a week too early. O’Driscoll and Philips have nine Lions Tests between them, while up front Heaslip, Croft, O’Connell, Alun Wyn Jones and Adam Jones have played in 17 Lions tests.
Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North, Davies and Sexton all make their Lions Test debuts, along with Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and Warburton. Gatland said the team and replacements were only finalised before the whole squad were informed.
“A couple of players were spoken to quietly. Andy (Farrell) chatted to the squad and said how important it is that everyone buys into it. We spoke to a couple of players about 2009.”
He illustrated the importance of the entire squad remaining unified and focussed by adding: “If you remember 2009, the midfield combination for the first Test was Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll and for the third Test it ended up being Riki Flutey and Tommy Bowe in the centre and I think we finished the match with Mike Phillips at 12 as well.
It’s important that the rest of the squad stay focussed. After the team announcement, we know there was some disappointment among the players, but it was just how those players went in and congratulated each other. There were a few disappointed (players) but we’re very close knit at the moment and there’s a really positive feel in the team.”
The most contentious selections were on the bench, where the specialist blindside Dan Lydiate was preferred to the more versatile Sean O’Brien, and Sean Maitland will cover the back three instead of the more experienced Rob Kearney and, arguably, the more dangerous Simon Zebo. Ben Youngs has been preferred to Conor Murray. Gatland conceded that Mako Vunipola was unlucky to miss out after his strong form on tour.
“We’ve looked at the weather conditions and potentially there is a threat of showers. I’ve no doubt that Robbie Deans has looked at Mako technically at scrum time so him coming off the bench will give us a huge amount of impetus. We think that will be a big strength.”
Gerry Thornley reports from Australia
“Technically, Alex is probably a little bit sounder, and with the referee at scrum time, we feel we’ve potentially got a little bit of an edge there. It’s always going to be a tough contest there, but I think technically Alex is pretty good and perhaps there’s a bit more of a combination there with Tom and Adam. There’s no doubt that Mako was very unlucky and he’ll make a big impact for us coming off the bench.”
A beaming Warburton declared: “It’s happy days, it’s awesome. It’s exactly what you want to achieve when you’re a young boy. Even though they’ve announced the team, I still feel pretty relaxed at this stage. I won’t feel the nerves until matchday in any game I play so I’m just enjoying it at the moment.” “It’s where you want to be.
All the players were very excited with the announcement and the boys who aren’t involved have been very supportive. They know there’s every chance they could get back into the Test team. It’s the first one of three, so there’s a long way to go and players have still got every chance of being involved. Personally, I’m absolutely delighted to be involved.”
British & Irish Lions (v Qantas Wallabies, June 22, Brisbane)
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues/Wales)
14. Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues/Wales)
13. Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland)
12. Jonathan Davies (Scarlets/Wales)
11. George North (Scarlets/Wales)
10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/Ireland)
9. Mike Phillips (Bayonne/Wales)
1. Alex Corbisiero (London Irish/England)
2. Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England)
3. Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales)
4. Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales)
5. Paul O’Connell (Munster/Ireland)
6. Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England)
7. Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues/Wales, capt)
8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland)
16. Richard Hibbard (Ospreys/Wales)
17. Makovina Vunipola (Saracens/England)
18. Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England)
19. Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers/England)
20. Dan Lydiate (Dragons/Wales)
21. Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England)
22. Owen Farrell (Saracens/England)
23. Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors/Ireland)