Fears over the fitness and wellbeing of Lions captain Sam Warburton have been allayed by his recall to lead the tourists in their next game against the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Tuesday (kick-off 7.35pm local time, 8.35am Irish time).
Warburton has seemingly recovered fully from the ankle injury he sustained in the Lions’ 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians last weekend. That was his first game since early April, and his selection is also recognition of his need for games.
For the third game running, Warren Gatland and the Lions coaches have announced an entirely new starting XV, of which only CJ Stander played any active part in last Saturday’s morale-boosting 12-3 win over the Crusaders.
Interestingly, Jared Payne is picked at fullback, a position which still seems very much up for grabs come the first Test in only a fortnight's time. Robbie Henshaw also makes his second tour start, the ante having been upped by another strong-carrying display by Ben Te'o in Christchurch and the way the Johnny Sexton-Owen Farrell 10-12 partnership worked for the last 50 minutes. Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Stander all start in the pack.
“At this stage of the tour everyone has had a start and as coaches we are happy that all the players have had a chance to put their hand up and perform in the Lions jersey,” said Gatland.
“Each game is a chance for individuals to shine but more importantly it’s about a collective performance. We are building some momentum and we have improved with every game. We were obviously pleased with the win against the Crusaders, especially our defence and game management, but we know the Highlanders will be another massive test for us as a squad.”
As for the Highlanders, three of their five players to be selected in the All Blacks squad last week – Liam Coltman, Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo – have all been made available for the franchise's first meeting with the Lions.
Against that, hugely influential scrumhalf Aaron Smith and fullback Ben Smith have not been released, while Liam Squire is still injured, and nor have their Maori contingent of Elliot Dixon, Ash Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Rob Thompson and Tom Franklin.
Despite that, the forwards are virtually unchanged from the starting pack that took on the Crusaders with only Jackson Hemopo and Dillon Hunt added. In the backs Teihorangi Walden gets a rare start with Richard Buckman shifting to fullback due to the unavailability of Matt Faddes as well as Ben Smith. Kayne Hammington will make just his second start of the season at scrumhalf.
Head coach Scott McLeod knows the match will be a big occasion “for some of these guys this will be the biggest rugby day of their careers, and it is a special moment in any rugby player’s life to play against the Lions. It’s going to be a massive occasion for the club and our supporters”.
LIONS (v Highlanders, Tuesday, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, Tuesday, 7.35pm local, 8.35am Irish time): Jared Payne (Ulster & Ireland); Jack Nowell (Exeter & England), Jonathan Joseph (Bath & England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster & Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow & Scotland); Dan Biggar ( Ospreys & Wales), Rhys Webb (Ospreys & Wales); Joe Marler (Harlequins & England), Rory Best (Ulster & Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins & England); Courtney Lawes (Northampton & England), Iain Henderson (Ulster & Ireland); James Haskell (Wasps & England), Sam Warburton (capt) (Cardiff &, Wales), CJ Stander (Munster & Ireland).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets & Wales), Jack McGrath (Leinster & Ireland), Dan Cole (Leicester & England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys & Wales), Greig Laidlaw ( Gloucester & Scotland), Owen Farrell (Saracens & England), Elliot Daly (Wasps & England).
HIGHLANDERS: Richard Buckman; Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li; Lima Sopoaga, Kayne Hammington; Daniel Lienert-Brown, Liam Coltman, Siate Tokolahi; Alex Ainley, Jackson Hemopo; Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt, Luke Whitelock (capt).
Replacements: Greg Pleasants-Tate, Aki Seiuli, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Josh Dickson, Jimmy Lentjes, Josh Renton, Marty Banks, Patrick Osborne.