The countdown has begun for the Lions to show true grit and step up against Crusaders. After two indifferent matches, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland is set to pick a lineup below test strength for Saturday’s match with the Crusaders at Christchurch.
Gatland has been quoted in saying he would give all 41 members of his touring squad a chance to play in the first three matches of the Lions’ New Zealand tour and would not reveal his test lineup until the fifth tour match against the New Zealand Maori, a week before the first test. Is this the right call? As many commentators and fans have said, the tour success is balanced on 3 tests versus the All Blacks, not what happens in the lead up, however a team with a winning spirit would go into those tests with immense undefeatable spirit.
Gatland experimental lineup this weekend meets a Crusaders team which contains nine All Blacks.
The four members of the Lions touring squad who did not play against the Blues or the Provincial Barbarians – flanker Sean O’Brien, scrumhalf Conor Murray, center Jonathan Davies and winger George North – will get their first outings.
England flyhalf Owen Farrell will be in the starting lineup for the first time on tour after coming off the bench to steady the Lions in a 13-7 win over the Barbarians. In that short cameo Farrell appeared to be more polished than Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Wales’ Dan Biggar who have started in the first two games. Surely it’s Farrell’s time to confirm his starting position for the all important All Black tests. His combination with Murray is the one Gatland should choose for the first test and for that reason the pair need to demonstrate an ability to control a game to a much greater degree than the Lions have shown so far on tour. The pack has worked reasonably well, however the backs have hardly threatened so far.
Alun Wyn Jones – on his third Lions tour – will lead the Lions from lock while New Zealand-born center Ben Te’o will get another chance to impress selectors.
Gatland’s comment after the loss to the Blues that Super Rugby teams are of similar strength to the All Blacks has led to widespread criticism. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who named a 33-man test squad, expressed surprise at the comment but suggested Gatland may have been joking.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said his players were looking forward to the experience of playing the Lions, “This is a huge and exciting challenge for us,” he said. “We are facing some of the best rugby players in the world but we have some of the world’s best in this team, too, so it will be a fantastic clash.”
Personally a team that includes Dagg, Franks, Whitelock and Moody is one to be respected and feared, so the Lions need early tries to stamp out any hope of a Crusaders hammering. Focus for the Lions should surely be on getting the back line working together, including giving North as much space as possible to use his lightning speed.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall; Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Sam Whitelock (captain), Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Ala’alatoa, Quinten Strange, Jed Brown, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Tim Bateman.
Lions: Stuart Hogg, George North, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te’o, Liam Williams, Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Taulupe Faletau, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Tadgh Furlong, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, C.J. Stander, Rhys Webb, Johnny Sexton, Anthony Watson.