Saturday 23 September 2017

Lions boss Gatland ready for 'tough' selection meeting ahead of All Blacks clash

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland will name his squad to face New Zealand on Wednesday
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland will name his squad to face New Zealand on Wednesday

Warren Gatland has admitted the British and Irish Lions coaches will face one of their toughest ever selection meetings to finalise the men to face New Zealand.

Gatland insisted tour captain Sam Warburton's continuing battle to squeeze into the starting line-up for Saturday's first Test in Auckland underscores the Lions' increasing potency.

Every tour captain has started the first Lions Test dating back to 1930, when England's Doug Prentice missed out, but Warburton is still fighting for full match sharpness after ankle trouble.

The Lions would be fully comfortable with Peter O'Mahony as captain for the first Test if Warburton is not deemed ready to start - and Gatland acknowledged Wednesday's final selection meeting will require some debate.

"I think our performances have been good; not everyone agrees with that opinion," said Gatland.

"We are pretty happy with where we are at the moment with the players in the group.

"The selection meeting will be tough and that's the way we want it.

"Guys put up their hands tonight and I've no doubt there will be some healthy debate."

Asked if Warburton's situation of battling for a start underlines a positive in the Lions' strength in depth, Gatland replied: "Absolutely, it's what you want.

"We spoke about the quality of the squad before we left and some players haven't disappointed us."

O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau have forged a formidable and so far first-choice back-row as the Lions' strongest XV have ground both the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks into submission.

The midweek team dismissed a disappointing Chiefs outfit 34-6 in Hamilton on Tuesday night, clearing the decks for the Lions to move on and focus fully on their bid to topple back-to-back world champions the All Blacks.

Jack Nowell bagged a try brace but appears just too far away to sneak into the Test match 23, though Elliot Daly's improving showing should earn him a seat on the bench.

Courtney Lawes shook off an accidental clash of heads with Joe Marler, passing a Head Injury Assessment (HIA), to produce a fine performance, with CJ Stander also offering another strong showing.

But both Lawes and Stander may still just miss out on Test squad selection, with Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones in the box seats at lock, and Warburton probably out in front with O'Mahony, O'Brien and Faletau in the back-row.

Gatland insisted that his entire backroom staff will thrash out the final first Test selection as a group - and that he will not make any unilateral decisions.

"The selection meeting will be with all the coaches," said Gatland.

"The way it always works, I can tell you in the past, it's always a consensus of that group.

"It's never one person's call, it's coaches discussing the options then collectively agreeing on selections. That's exactly what will happen tomorrow.

"We'll have some lively debate, and then we will all agree on it. It will be us all contributing."

Gatland has called on officials to police perceived illegal blocking from the All Blacks in the Test series, and referee Jerome Garces conspicuously penalised the Chiefs for that very offence on Tuesday.

When quizzed again on blocking, the Lions boss insisted however that his coaches had not been whinging to the officials. Instead he revealed the referees had actually raised the matter first.

"Look, the referees have identified that," said Gatland, of the blocking discussions.

"I just said it was frustrating that there had been subtle blocking.

"We haven't come out and bitched and moaned about anything. Sometimes decisions go against you.

"The referees have picked up on it, and there was one tonight, and hopefully it gets stamped out of the game."

Nowell, Daly and Liam Williams gelled to fine effect in the Lions' first real back-three performance of attacking flair against the Chiefs.

Gatland believes Exeter wing Nowell's upswing in performance echoed that of a number of the men who triumphed in Hamilton.

"Someone like Jack Nowell, it just hadn't happened for him in the first couple of games," said Gatland.

"But he is a player who is prolific in terms of getting his hands on the ball, and he showed that when he scored his tries. I was pleased to see him play well and I thought Elliot (Daly) looked sharp and Liam (Williams) too.

"It was a combination that looked pretty dangerous and pretty potent."

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie believes the Lions are now in a place to push the All Blacks in the three-Test series.

"The Lions are getting better and better aren't they? Getting settled in combinations and so on," said Rennie.

"They were able to dominate us in a number of areas. But they'll come up against a pretty good set-piece in the All Blacks.

"I think it's going to be the series everyone thought it would be. There had been a few doubts about that recently, but I think that's gone."

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