Warren Gatland giving no hints on Lions first Test lineup

Selection for next week’s meeting with South Africa remains up in the air

Warren Gatland prior to the match between DHL Stormers and British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Warren Gatland prior to the match between DHL Stormers and British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Warren Gatland keeps us guessing better than most when it comes to selection, and not least with regard to picking a British & Irish Lions Test team. But even by those standards this week’s musing over the team to play the Springboks next Saturday have never been so open to speculation.

In the light of the 49-3 win over the Stormers in the final tour game before the first Test, we are hardly any the wiser, in part because there has been so much disruption and less evidence to go on.

Even Gatland himself would struggle to name his XV right now, and he reiterated the back three and the backrow are particularly complex.

“I’m probably only repeating what everyone else is saying; there are going to be some tight calls with regard to the make-up of the back three. Also the loose forwards and how that mix is going to look.

“They’re probably the tightest calls that we’ve got to make in terms of getting the balance right in those positions. But we’ll go through everyone and look at the starting XV.

“And also it’s important that we consider the impact the bench will have as well and having the right players to come on and continue the momentum or add something that we might need.”

Indeed, mindful of the Springboks’ so-called Bomb Squad and their 6-2 split on the bench, strong performances might well nail a place in the matchday squad, but conceivably as a replacement rather than a starter.

A key factor in all this is that while the rest of us engage in framing a starting XV and replacement pretty much every week since the overall squad is named, Gatland himself doesn’t do so, preferring to keep a fairly open mind until the week of the first Test.

“I don’t go in with preconceived ideas. I let the media and the other rugby experts (do that). They all have their own opinions and they are all very, very different from each other. I don’t have any issues with that.

“I try not to go in with any thoughts that this is potentially a Test side. I try to let that develop and the players to have that opportunity to put their hands up. Sometimes it’s about looking at the players and their numbers and the stats, and sometimes it’s about having gut feeling about certain players and combinations.

“I’ve started to get some names in my head and thinking about combinations. So we’re starting to get closer and we’ll sit down and have a look at this game and talk to the medics about all the players.

“From a fitness perspective, I think we’re pretty good so we’ll start thinking about getting those combinations together. That’s the next 48 or 72 hours where we’ll go through that process.

“It will be some robust debate I would presume.”

Gatland confirmed that Alun Wyn Jones would regain the tour captaincy from Conor Murray, although was non-committal as to whether the Welsh warrior will lead the side next week.

“It was a shame he picked up the injury but it’s great to have him back. We’ll have that discussion about whether there’s a role for him as a starter, bench player, or not involved next week.”

“The captain will depend on the side we name. Alun Wyn has come back into that role [as tour captain].

“Conor is comfortable, he stepped in to do it and Alu Wyn was named as tour captain before. It’s brilliant that he has come back and Conor, he’s the first to admit that it was more than comfortable for Alun Wyn to come back.

“It’s a measure of him [Murray] as a person as well. He wasn’t prepared to give up his bedroom suite though, he got the captain’s bedroom suite.

“It was easy in terms of that and we’ll see how the preparation goes next week. If Alu Wyn is involved, or if he’s not involved, then it will be someone else who potentially leads the team.”

Murray looked a certainty for the ‘9’ jersey in the first Test, but Ali Price’s form has brought that into question.

“Ali has done well and Gareth (Davies) probably didn’t play as well as he would have liked last week. I thought he was good coming off the bench (today).

“There were probably a few box kicks that went a little bit too far and we wanted to compete a little bit more, so that’s an area we need to tidy up,” added Gatland in reference to Price on Saturday.

“But he has looked sharp and when he started to run a little bit he put them under a bit of pressure, particularly from third and fourth phase. He had a nice break and picked up some runners as well, so he’s been excellent. I have been really pleased with his performances.”

Robbie Henshaw also looked a sure thing for the Lions midfield until a hamstring twinge delayed his first start in South Africa until Saturday, and his removal almost on the hour was pre-planned.

“We planned to give Robbie that amount of time, we didn’t want him to go the full 80. We wanted him to have a hit out. I think it was obvious that he needed the run and again there were a couple of things in his game that he’ll look at and given his experience and what he’s able to do I think he’ll be better for that if he gets that opportunity next week.

“So he definitely needed the game. He was tidy without being brilliant but I was pleased with the way, as a team, keeping them tryless and we defended exceptionally and he was a big part of that, and working in terms of organizing that midfield defence and that short side as well.”

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