Peter O’Mahony in line to captain Lions in first Test
Warren Gatland names another new XV for Chiefs clash including five Irish players
Peter O’Mahpny captained the Lions against the New Zealand Maori and could do so again in the first Test. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty
Peter O’Mahony looks to be the front-runner to captain the British & Irish Lions in the first test against New Zealand at Eden Park next Saturday if one reads between the lines of the tourists’ selection to face the Cheifs in Hamilton on Tuesday (kick-off 7.35pm local time/7.35am Irish).
For the fifth game running the Lions have made 15 changes, supplemented by the six late call-ups to the squad over the weekend on the bench, and while it is still a strong side it would seem that all but one of this match-day 23 have been protected for the first Test.
There are a number of pointers to the first test team and replacements in the selection to face the Chiefs. One of the more obvious ones is the selection of CJ Stander at number eight, whereas Sam Warburton’s non-involvement against the Chiefs strongly hints that the Lions tour captain will be preferred to Stander next Saturday.
However, on all available evidence and particularly after backing his effort against Crusaders with a big 80 minute display in the 32-10 win over the New Zealand Maori, Sean O’Brien must remain favourite to be in the starting line-up at openside.
Another interesting selection against the Chiefs is that of Alun Wyn-Jones on the bench. One of the five locks was always going to have to double up, and it appears that the Welsh second-row, who captained the Lions to their third test triumph in Sydney four years ago, will be filling that role.
However, the performances of Maro Itoje and George Kruis against the Maori All Blacks makes it hard for the Lions’ coaches to replace either of the Saracens and English pair, meaning Jones may be on the bench again next Saturday.
O’Mahony in line for captaincy
In that scenario, O’Mahony is the obvious front-runner to captain the Lions again after leading them to that handsome, sleeves-rolled-up win over the Maori in Rotorua. Even if Jones were chosen alongside Kruis in the second-row, with Itoje on the bench, there would be a compelling argument for retaining O’Mahony as captain.
The other possible pointer toward the selection for the first Test is the absence of George North from the Chiefs match-day squad, suggesting he may be part of a back three with Leigh Halpfenny and Anthony Watson.
“We spoke to the players beforehand and some know that they have an opportunity on Tuesday and then we’re preparing for a Test on Saturday.
“They’ve got to go out and perform and know the performance will count for a lot at the end of the tour.
“We made nine changes between the Tests in 2013, so the players must be positive and confident. The players are up for it. We’ve lost two midweek games narrowly when we’ve been in front on 70 minutes. We’ve got to give players the time to make sure how important Tuesday night is in terms of preparing and giving a performance. They are still potentially in the frame for Saturday. We will need some players who may need to double up.”
Uppermost amongst these would appear to be Jones. “We’ve rested him the last couple of games because he had quite a significant part to play earlier, and we needed to freshen him up,” said Gatland. “He may be used or not depending on the circumstances of the match.” To that end, there is a second Welsh lock on the bench in Cory Hill.
Up for grabs
Jonathan Joseph is another interesting absentee from the Chiefs game, albeit Jonathan Davies (an ever present in the series four years ago) looks the likely 13 come Saturday, while the composition of the back three and certainly the utility back on the bench looks up for grabs.
“Absolutely. There’s still (players) not confirmed in terms of number of combinations. There’s final decisions still to be made at lock, backrow, the back-three as well, and midfield too. There’s a great opportunity for players to play for slots.
“There’s opportunities for players to go out and perform. You just never know. We won’t sit down to pick the team until Wednesday and that’s only fair on the players who are taking the field on Tuesday.”
Gatland also expressed his belief that Owen Farrell will be fit for the start of the test series. “I was always confident about Owen being fit. I was never not confident.”
As regards the squad’s overall health, he added: “Leigh Halfpenny obviously took a knock on the weekend, so he’s going through the HIA protocols. Apart from that it’s bumps and bruises, we took George Kruis off relatively early because his calf was a bit tight. But aside from that nothing that’s a concern for too long. We’re in pretty good shape at the moment.”
Rory Best OBE
Rory Best will become the Lions’ fifth matchday captain in six games, in a side featuring four other Irish players in Iain Henderson, Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne. Completing a momentous few days, Best has also been awarded an OBE.
“Gats announced it in the team and of course they made me get up and say a few words. They all congratulated me and we went out for a bit of a dinner together, so they’re now calling me sir as well. Joe Marler won’t let me carry my kit bag. He’s carrying for it me. It’s all good fun but I think there was a lot of sincere congratulations as well, which is nice when you’re surrounded by the best players and they’re coming up and giving you congratulations. It means a lot.”
The last time he captain the Lions, they lost to the Brumbies in Canberra in the week of the first Test. “Yeah, the last time I captained the Lions it didn’t go perfectly for us, but I’ll personally be looking to set that record straight on Tuesday.”
“I think when you look at our team we’re more than capable of it. We’re used to playing with each other and like I say you always want a little bit more so we’ll want that win on Tuesday, and ultimately we want to win a test series and whoever is lucky enough to take the field in those tests, they’re very fortunate but it’s our job as well to make sure that everyone else is rallying around that and the same for the game on Tuesday.
“The guys that played on Saturday will roll up their sleeves and help us prepare for Tuesday and depending on what happens at the end of the week the opposite will happen.”
A crowd of around 30,000 is expected at the FMG Stadium Waikato for the Chiefs’ first ever meeting with the Lions. The home side have picked a relatively inexperienced side to face the Lions, albeit the strongest that is available to them allowing for the dozen players who were named in the All Blacks and Maori squads.
None of their six starters for the Maori All Blacks feature in their XV. Of them only Liam Messam makes the match-day squad, and he is joined by hooker Hika Elliot, who was a replacement in Rotorua.
Their recent centurion Stephen Donald, the man who kicked the match-winning penalty in the 2011 World Cup final at Eden Park, will captain the side.
The Samoan centre Tim Nanai-Williams, who stepped Sonny Bill Williams in the early stages of last Friday’s match with the All Blacks, starts at outside centre.
The Counties Manukau back Luteru Laulala, a brother of former Munster centre Casey, and Chase Tiatia from Bay of Plenty, are in line to make their debuts for the Chiefs off the bench.
British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly, Dan Biggar, Greig Laidlaw; Joe Marler, Rory Best, Dan Cole, Iain Henderson, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander. Replacements: Kristian Dacy, Allan Dell, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones, Gareth Davies, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour.
Chiefs: Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Liam Polwart, Nepo Laulala, Dominic Bird, Michael Allardice, Mitchell Brown, Lachlan Boshier, Tom Sanders, Finlay Christie, Stephen Donald, Solomon Alaimalo, Johnny Faauli, Tim Nanai-Williams, Toni Pulu, Shaun Stevenson. Replacements: Hika Elliot, Aidan Ross, Atu Moli, Liam Messam, Mitchell Karpik, Jonathan Taumateine, Luteru Laulala, Chase Tiatia.