Head coach Warren Gatland has a serious conundrum to resolve in this key department.
Tomorrow’s captain and blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony, openside Sean O’Brien, and No 8 Taulupe Faletau are reunited for the Maori game having performed excellently in the win over the Crusaders.
Yet the presence on the replacements bench of Sam Warburton will be a signal that the tour captain is being given every chance to prove his fitness before the opening Test against the All Blacks a week on Saturday.
O’Brien versus Warburton, coming off a try-scoring 66-minute comeback in Tuesday’s loss to the Highlanders, is a serious selection dilemma with both making their way back from injuries suffered in early April.
It could have an impact on the other back-row positions with the Irishman also an option at blindside if Gatland wants to play them both, while CJ Stander will be watching nervously from the stands after another impressive performance off the bench last Tuesday.
(On Warburton and O’Brien): “They’ll both get game time and Sam gets another chance on Saturday night to come and perform. He’s well aware of the competition that is there at the moment. He understands that that loose forward trio went outstandingly well against the Crusaders.
“One of the reasons we selected him as captain of the squad is that he is an absolute quality player but also, this tour isn’t about Sam Warburton it’s about putting the squad first, and so if he’s not involved in the first Test because of the performance on Saturday night he will fully understand that.”
Back-in-form Johnny Sexton got the nod over Owen Farrell, who was named among the replacements, only for the English star to be ruled out six hours later with a grade one (mild) quadriceps strain suffered in the Lions’ afternoon training session. It means Gatland will not be able to experiment further with the Sexton-Farrell, midfield axis that worked so well against the Crusaders, once the Irishman had come off the bench after 28 minutes. Sexton replaced outside centre Jon Davies and slotted into the out-half berth, pushing Farrell to inside centre and Ben Te’o to 13 as the Lions kicked on and beat Super Rugby’s leading side. Farrell must now be considered a concern for the first Test, meaning the onus is on Sexton to keep improving from a disappointing start. Wales fly-half Dan Biggar replaces Farrell on the bench.
“Johnny needs more rugby and we’re building on that. He was really good off the bench the other day and the combination (with Farrell) of 10 and 12 was pretty seamless. He was just down a little on confidence but he’s got a bit of his mojo back, and we wanted to give him a start against the Maori.”
The Lions will start with 2013 man of the series Leigh Halfpenny, whose goal-kicking sealed the victory over Australia. His Wales and Lions kicking coach Neil Jenkins believes the Toulon star is getting back to his best after missing a year through injury and he will need a big performance against the Maori to convince Gatland he is not just a safe pair of hands in the last line of defence but a serious threat going forward. Anthony Watson, who starts on the wing tomorrow, showed he has the pace, power and footwork to unsettle defences and score tries and Halfpenny has a serious battle on his hands to keep the England man out wide.
“Some of (Watson’s) footwork and pace, we’d like to see him get the ball in his hands and get more opportunities to score tries and to show what he’s about. He’s dangerous, quick, elusive, the challenge for us is to get the ball to him a bit more. It’s an opportunity for (Halfpenny) to show what experience he has got. His counter attacking and scoring tries has improved significantly, that’s what we need from a 15. We know how strong he is defensively, but it’s the attacking threat we’re looking for him to add to us on Saturday.”