Wednesday 13 December 2017

Sexton may have to bide time for Lions berth

Out-half dilemma one of head coach's big calls but Te'o looks more like a Gatland prototype

Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell are theoretically in competition for the one spot. However, Warren Gatland may choose the option of pairing them together. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell are theoretically in competition for the one spot. However, Warren Gatland may choose the option of pairing them together. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Officially, the Lions coaches will meet tomorrow to discuss their selection for the first Test, but this team has actually been months in the making.

Warren Gatland knows this territory well and has been shaping the side to face New Zealand on Saturday since he got the job.

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Form has intervened in some areas, with players playing their way in and out of contention, but the former Ireland supremo will have a clear idea of who will take the field at Eden Park.

By shielding 22 of his squad from duty this morning, the Kiwi has given a broad hint at the make-up of the match-day squad and there are only a few players in action in Hamilton with a realistic chance of featuring.

The selection will have a knock-on effect on the captaincy, however, with a number of scenarios at play - including the increasingly likelihood that Peter O'Mahony will skipper the side into the first Test.

Gatland has stated that second-row, back-row, centre and back three are all still up for discussion, meaning Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong and Conor Murray can sleep easy this week.

Otherwise, the players will be on tenterhooks until all is revealed. The head coach has some big decisions to make.

The back-line shape

Owen Farrell or Johnny Sexton? Farrell and Sexton? The decision on how to construct the No 10-12 combination is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the selection calls.

Ben Te'o has arguably been the best player on the tour to date, consistently getting his side over the gain line with huge carries, defending well and bringing aggression to the party.

He is a prototype Gatland centre and has impressed the coach, while he also has experience - albeit in a different code - of handling Sonny Bill Williams.

However, he's only started one Test in his union career, lining up at outside centre for England against Italy in this year's Six Nations. That game was memorable for one thing and it wasn't the big New Zealander's carrying.

The alternative to the blunt force of Te'o is the combination of Sexton at out-half and Farrell outside him.

They dove-tailed well together when they were pressed into service against the Crusaders and despite the coaches' insistence that it hadn't been drilled at training, Sexton revealed on Saturday that they had been on the paddock together as early as Carton House.

It is not a ploy Gatland has ever favoured before and it would represent a change-up from his game-plan to date, but in 2013 his strategy was to lure the Australians into thinking his team would play an expansive game before tightening up for the Tests and this time he may do the opposite. Perhaps more likely is that he'll pair Te'o with Jon Davies and then introduce Sexton (presuming Farrell is fit) off the bench as a change-up option.

Steve Hansen is expecting the two out-halves to play together and the Ireland No 10's performance on Saturday earned him full consideration, but it may be something that evolves over the series.

The back-row conundrum

The success of the trio of O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau appears to have convinced Gatland to keep his tour captain Sam Warburton on ice, but the decision to pull the Wales openside means the Munster man cannot rest easily just yet.

Warburton played at blindside in the Six Nations, while O'Brien can cover there too and if the coach wants his skipper in from the start then O'Mahony looks most vulnerable. However, it seems unlikely given the form the trio have brought to the table and Gatland's stated desire for a lineout option in his back-row. Faletau can get up in the air, but the Irish No 6 is exceptional at that area of the game.

The combination is working and it would be a mistake to change it.

The Saracens connection

Alun Wyn Jones captained the Lions to a successful series decider four years ago, but the Wales skipper is in danger of being squeezed out by the Saracens and England pair of Maro Itoje and George Kruis, who impressed on Saturday and have a strong connection.

Jones was poor against the Highlanders last week and came in to the tour with an injury. His selection on the bench this morning suggests he's fighting for a bench spot.

Wings struggling to fly

Anthony Watson aside, the one area where no one has put their hands up is on the wing, where the race to join Leigh Halfpenny in the back three has been sluggish.

It's expected that George North will again be handed the slot, but his form is coming nowhere near matching his reputation at this stage and he needs a major improvement in order to keep the shirt.

The bench impact

CJ Stander admitted that today's team are fighting for bench inclusion, but he is one of those in the frame for a spot on Saturday.

Gatland has spoken of the need for impact and Stander brings that in spades - certainly more than Warburton, who provides leadership and calmness, but lacks the oomph of the Munster man.

The same dilemma faces the coach on whether to select Courtney Lawes, Iain Henderson or Jones to cover second-row; Henderson has been in excellent form, but much will depend on his minutes this morning.

Kyle Sinckler may edge Dan Cole to join Ken Owens and Jack McGrath in the front-row, while Rhys Webb, Sexton and Elliot Daly appear the likely trio of backs unless Sexton and Farrell combine and Te'o takes the final berth.

Predicted Test XV: L Halfpenny; A Watson, J Davies, B Te'o, G North; O Farrell, C Murray; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong; M Itoje, G Kruis; P O'Mahony (capt), S O'Brien, T Faletau. Reps: K Owens, J McGrath, K Sinckler, I Henderson, S Warburton, R Webb, J Sexton, E Daly.

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