Owen Farrell set to keep Sexton out of Lions test team

Peter O’Mahony still likely to captain Lions against All Blacks on Saturday

 

The Lions’ coaching staff are scheduled to meet on Wednesday to finalise their match-day 23 for the first test in Auckland next Saturday, to be announced at 7am on Thursday (8pm Wednesday Irish time). But there were plenty of signals in the selection to face the Chiefs as to the possible make-up of the starting XV and replacements to play the All Blacks.

Little about the events of their win in Hamilton ought to have altered that unduly. The markers having been laid down by the performances over the last two Saturdays against the Crusaders and the New Zealand Maori, the vast bulk of the first test side is sure to come from those two line-ups, and especially the team that kicked off in Rotorua.

Of that starting XV, the likelihood is that all bar Johnny Sexton will have propelled themselves into the first test team, with the only change being the return of the fit again Owen Farrell.

At fullback, in the absence of the unfortunate Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny was virtually error-free again in Rotorua. He also extended his sequence of place kicks on tour to 12 from 12.

Until Tueday night, the Lions’ wings have been less than exceptional on this tour, and all bias aside of course, could arguably have done with the finishing ability of Keith Earls and/or the X factor of Simon Zebo, especially when working in tandem with Conor Murray.

That said, Anthony Watson has been the stand-out winger, scoring against the Provincial Barbarians, impressing at fullback for an hour off the bench against the Crusaders with his counter-attacking, footwork and pace, and was also the pick so far when it came to chasing box kicks and restarts against the Maori.

Potential

One could almost make a case for any of the other wingers, but George North’s selection against both the Crusaders and the Maori hints at his retention this Saturday. “We know what potential he has,” said Gatland last Sunday. “He hasn’t quite fulfilled that at the moment but he is the sort of guy that can get a loose ball or break and can score from 60 metres. That’s the potential he has.”

For all Gatland’s admiration of Jack Nowell’s hunger for the ball and his brace of tries against the Chiefs, he’s had some difficult nights defensively, notably against Reiko Ioane in the Blues game.

The absence of both Jonathan Davies and Jonathan Joseph from Tuesday night’s game suggests there is still some debate about the number 13 jersey. Gatland is a strong admirer of Joseph, and the coaching team were more than pleased with his try-scoring performance against the Highlanders.

Even so, Joseph missed three tackles in the opener against the Provincial Barbarians, and while Davies mightn’t have the same footwork and acceleration, he’s no slouch, is a good defender, straightens the line and has a better kicking game. He is also more experienced, with 67 caps to Joseph’s 33, and this includes starting all three Lions tests in Australia.

Axis

There is a theory hereabouts in the home and travelling media, and seemingly shared by Steve Hansen, that Gatland will pick Farrell and Sexton at 10-12, as was so effective for the last 50 minutes against the Crusaders. That would give the Lions two playmakers and might see the wingers receive more ball.

But Gatland has always liked a strong carrying inside centre. He has also consistently stated that the two have rarely run together in training and that Farrell is considered an outhalf, despite him being player of the tournament at ‘12’ in the Six Nations. The Sexton-Farrell axis looks more of an option for the last 20 minutes or so.

Ben Te’o remains fairly inexperienced at this level, having hitherto started in only one of his eight tests for England. But Gatland has praised him highly and might prefer him going up against Sonny Bill Williams than one of his outhalves.

Pecking order

All the indications are that Farrell came out to New Zealand and remains ahead of Sexton and Dan Biggar in the outhalf pecking order. This would be a little hard on Sexton, who in finding his form and assuredly gave the best outhalf performance of the tour to date last Saturday.

It says everything about Murray’s form and all-round game that he now appears almost as important to the Lions as he is to Munster and Ireland.

The frontrow of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong have had almost identical game time, coming on together in the 50th minute against the Barbarians, then playing the first hour or so against the Crusaders and Maori when they helped earn the tour’s first scrum penalty try. Nailed on. Likewise, Jack McGrath, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler as back-up.

As with Te’o, Vunipola and George, it’s fair to assume the Lions coaches viewed Itoje in the role of an impact replacement come the first test. But, allowing for his defensive blip against the Blues, Itoje’s unrelenting physicality against the Maori has surely compelled them to reconsider.

Barnstorming

The back-row of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau started both wins over the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks. Such has been O’Brien’s form, notably his barnstorming 80 minute effort last Saturday, that Sam Warburton may be on the bench.

This in turn would mean O’Mahony being named captain, as he was so impressively against the Maori. Alun Wyn Jones’ exclusion from the starting team against the Chiefs points to him being in the 23 for the first test, if not the starting XV. Conceivably of course, Gatland and co could opt for Warburton at blindside.

With Rhys Webb set to be on the bench, the other debate will focus on number 23. This looked up for grabs going into the Chiefs game.

Liam Williams, Jared Payne and Elliot Daly all bring versatility, and the latter a left-footed kicking game. Or it could be that Joseph’s absence means he has been earmarked for a bench role against the All Blacks, given Watson can cover full-back.

Possible British & Irish Lions (v New Zealand) v New Zealand: Halfpenny; Watson, Davies, Te’o, North; Farrell, Murray; Vunipola, George, Furlong; Itoje, Kruis; O’Mahony (capt), O’Brien, Faletau. Replacements: Owens, McGrath, Sinckler, Jones, Warburton, Webb, Sexton, Joseph.

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