Gerry Thornley: Some risks, but Gatland’s gut instincts usually serve him well

Picking the right team is tricky and critical for the first Test of a Lions tour

Few, if any, Lions first Test selections are met with universal approval. Some of the choices will be questioned on the premise of form, past achievements and, of course, national biases.

Not that every selection will be based entirely on form. It can’t be that simple. Some will factor in credit in the bank, observing players on tour, be it matches or training, and data. There’s also proven combinations and the input of assistant coaches.

And some, as Warren Gatland says, will just be gut instinct.

Picking the right team is both tricky and critical for the first Test of a Lions tour. Akin to 2009 in South Africa, the Lions beat all six provincial opponents while drawing with the South African A side. But at least they were given some tough games, with wins by two and three points, and twice by 12 points.

This time they lost to the A side while beating regional opponents by margins of 42, 47, 40 and 46 points.

Twelve years ago, with Ian McGeechan heading a coach ticket which also included Graham Rowntree (scrum) and Gatland (forwards), they picked the wrong tight five for the first Test in Durban, when Phil Vickery endured a particularly harrowing day against the 23-year-old Tendai Mtawarira.

Destruction

Whatever the legalities of the Beast’s technique, with referee Bryce Lawrence in acutely schoolmasterly mood with the England prop and captain Paul O’Connell, Vickery was driven inwards and/or skywards at virtually every put in. Thrice he was pinged, with Ruan Pienaar landing two of the ensuing three shots at goal, and the destruction of another Lions scrum led indirectly to a monster three-pointer by Morne Steyn as the Boks built a 19-7 interval lead.

Vickery was put out of his torture in the 45th minute and all changed dramatically with the introduction of Adam Jones. Suddenly the Lions scrum was rock steady, even more so when Matthew Rees replaced Lee Mears soon after. But despite coming back from 26-7 to lose 26-21, the damage had largely been done. The line-out also wobbled, and a week later Rees, Jones and Simon Shaw all started the second Test.

Back in New Zealand in 2005, Clive Woodward largely ignored Wales's Grand Slam, and form, when resorting to a dozen of his 2003 World Cup-winning English team in the "22", with eight starting, in a selection notable for players who lacked match practice.

Whereupon they were stuffed in all three Tests. Then again, after losing Lawrence Dallaglio to a fractured ankle in the tour opener and Brian O’Driscoll after just two minutes, it probably wouldn’t have mattered who Woodward picked against Richie McCaw, Dan Carter et al.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that Gatland is not only an exceptional head coach, he is a good selector. However, even he must wonder how the first Test might have panned out four years ago had he gone with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as a 10-12 combo, rather than Farrell with the non-passing Ben Te’o. Sexton replaced Te’o inside the hour before starting alongside Farrell in the victorious second Test and drawn third Test. In the five Tests Sexton started, the Lions only lost once.

Given the "Beast" is retired, and the world-class Tadhg Furlong has Kyle Sinckler as back-up, this Lions pack should not suffer anything like the carnage in Durban 12 years ago. It's a bold and dynamic looking selection.

Missed out

While four of the dozen ever-presents from four years ago – Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Furlong and Alun-Wyn Jones – all start on Saturday, Conor Murray, Farrell and Liam Williams are on the bench, but Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Taulupe Faletau all miss the cut. Given only 26 players were used in the series four years ago, like the others who've missed out, they must fear their tour is run.

Yet it’s still surprising that big-game hunters like Murray and Williams aren’t starting. Both possess the kind of strength, defence, kicking game, aerial ability and experience which looks tailor-made for this challenge.

Gatland cited Ali Price’s “running game against the Stormers”, adding “he was getting the ball away quickly”, while stressing the important role off the bench for Murray, Farrell and Williams. Yet it’s still hard not to factor in the opposition Price and Duhan van der Merwe have faced.

That said, Gatland’s gut instincts generally serve him well.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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