As well as they played in dispatching the Rebels at AAMI Park yesterday, British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland will not rush to parachute any of his fringe players into the starting side for Saturday’s second Test against Australia.
That was made clear when, despite a five-try whitewash of Melbourne’s Super Rugby franchise, Gatland offered hope to the players who achieved victory, before suggesting he would not veer too far from the matchday squad of 23 that achieved a narrow win over the Wallabies in Brisbane last Saturday when he names his second-Test line-up for this weekend’s game at Etihad Stadium.
Bench places are the best he can offer, given the Lions have already promoted Geoff Parling to starting lock in the absence of the injured Paul O’Connell, while loosehead prop Alex Corbisiero’s calf issue is likely to lead to the upgrade from replacement to starter for Mako Vunipola.
Of his quintet of starters against the Rebels who featured off the bench in their 23-21 win over the Australians last Saturday, neither Dan Lydiate and Owen Farrell nor Richard Hibbard, Sean Maitland and Dan Cole did anything to dissuade Gatland from picking them again for Test duty, despite strong showings from, amongst others, Sean O’Brien, Manu Tuilagi, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray.
“The message has always been to be consistent with everybody,” Gatland said. “With the players we’ve tried to be as up front and honest as we can. It’s a big part of what we’ve tried to do with the squad.
“The message to the players was it was an opportunity for players to go out there tonight and be a part of the 23 for Saturday, or even part of the starting XV. We’ve been consistent on that. There were no guarantees about that, but we had the conversation as coaches that had Kurtley Beale kicked one of those kicks at the end of the (first Test) and lost would we have been discussing what sort of changes we needed?
“You take a slightly different approach to it sometimes. We probably thought we might have made a few changes, so we articulated that to the squad that your tour’s not over, there are chances for people to be involved either this weekend or the following weekend.”
With Corbisiero, according to Gatland, “probably struggling a little bit” and Jamie Roberts “probably in the same boat” for Saturday but likely to be available for the third Test the opportunities for the midweekers are probably further limited, although yesterday’s matchday captain Lydiate, under some pressure from O’Brien after the pair played together against the Rebels, was talking positively about his players making the most of their opportunity with Murray, Maitland, O’Brien and Ben Youngs all scoring tries, while the pack engineered a second-half penalty try awarded by referee Glen Jackson as the Lions brushed aside a willing but limited Rebels side captained by Welshman Gareth Delve.
“We talked about it in the team room,” Lydiate said. “It’s a massive challenge.
“It’s still open for the weekend for selection. The boys are really champing at the bit. Before the game in the changing room you could really feel the intensity, so it was quite easy to lead the boys.
“Some of our enthusiasm was a bit much at times, we were making a few mistakes, but can’t fault the boys for their effort to try and put a marker down for the weekend. For me it was a massive honour to lead the team and get a result with the team. It will live long in my memory.”
MELBOURNE REBELS: J Woodward; T English, M Inman (C Vuna, 51), R Sidey, L Mitchell; B Hegarty (A Roberts, 72), L Burgess (N Stirzaker, 55); N Henderson (C Ah Nau, 60), G Robinson (P Leafa, 60), L Weeks (P Alo-Emile, 60), C Neville, H Pyle (L Jones, h-t), J Saffy, S Fuglistaller, G Delve – captain (J Reid, 55).
Yellow card: Reid 63-73.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: R Kearney (B Twelvetrees, 62); S Maitland, M Tuilagi, B Barritt (B Twelvetrees, 31-40), S Zebo; O Farrell (S Hogg, 51), C Murray (B Youngs, 64); R Grant (T Court, 55), R Hibbard (R Best, 55), D Cole (M Stevens, 55); R Gray, I Evans; D Lydiate – captain (T Croft, 66), S O’Brien (J Tipuric, 55), T Faletau.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand).