The Lions all starts here! After a year of building excitement over the Lions’ four-yearly quest to beat the best of the southern hemisphere, it kicks off this Saturday against a New Zealand Provincial Barbarians side.
Unless you are an avid fan of New Zealand rugby, there are unlikely to be many names you recognise on the Barbarians team sheet – bar, of course, Bryn Gatland, the Lions coach’s son. This is by far the weakest team the Lions will face and given it is also a scratch side, they won’t even have the familiarity with each other club sides usually enjoy when facing an all-star team.
Meanwhile the Lions team is interesting. Gatland has obviously been forced on some of his selections – players from Exeter, Wasps, Scarlets, Munster and Northampton were not considered due to their involvement in the respective league finals and Champions Cup play-offs, while Rhys Webb has been nursing a slight injury.
Gatland has also indicated in an interview with The Telegraph that he will be keeping his test selection cards close to his chest until closer to the first game against the All Blacks, saying: ‘It’s obvious that in the first five games you’re not going to show everything, you’re not going to show your hand.’
So don’t read too much into some of his choices. But it is still fun to read a little bit!
Sexton ahead of Farrell at 10 and Te’o at 12 is intriguing – we have Gatland’s usual ploy of power at 12 when many of us were hoping to see the two flyhalves used in tandem – but this game is likely being used as a chance for the Irish flyhalf to get some game time with the English backs he has picked outside him (Te’o, Joseph and Watson).
What will show more about Gatland’s intentions is when and where he brings Farrell on – at 10 or 12.
In the forwards, Kyle Sinckler (undoubtedly the biggest bolter in the squad) makes his first ever international start. The first player to make his starting debut for the Lions? He will be revved up and want to prove himself as more than a ‘finisher’. His Harlequins colleague, Joe Marler, is starting at loosehead so that should give him a hand.
Welsh duo Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton are also in need of some game time so that will be some of the thinking behind their starting place. The Saracens, Maro Itoje and George Kruis, have also had a heavier work load recently with that hugely attritional Champions Cup final against Clermont understandably affecting their performance against Exeter. This will likely have influenced Gatland’s decision to partner Jones with Iain Henderson.
Expect to see the full bench used, and early on, as the Lions coaches will want to see as many players as possible in action.
So an interesting team, with plenty to prove, and maybe an early glimmer as to Gatland’s test-team thinking to be found in how he uses his substitutions. The Lions will want to kick off with a strong victory. Whatever people say about the tests being the only matches that count, and a couple of early losses would not matter, we all know winning breeds confidence and a loss against the weakest team they face would be a huge shock.
I am predicting a scrappy match as both teams look to find some rhythm, but in the end a comfortable victory for the 2017 Lions.
My prediction: Lions by 25
Average Superbru prediction: Lions by 11.08
What is your prediction for the match?
By Henry Ker
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