Peter O’Mahony’s elevation to the British & Irish Lions captaincy for Saturday’s first test against New Zealand is as much a signal of intent as the bestowal of a coveted title on a born leader.
All Blacks v Lions
Saturday: Eden Park, 8.35am Irish time
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
TV: Live on Sky Sports 1
Bet: All Blacks 1/5 Lions 4/1 Draw 30/1
Head coach Warren Gatland last night named the Munster and Ireland flanker to lead the Lions against the world champions in Eden Park as he revealed an exciting starting XV picked on form rather than reputation and a bench packed with experience and the capacity to make an impact to counter the depth of talent at the All Blacks’ disposal, one of their most impressive strengths.
In O’Mahony, 27, Gatland has a captain who embodies what he believes it will take to beat the best team in the world, the Corkman having brought what his head coach described as “Munster mongrel” to the Lions back row in his two starts to date at blindside flanker, the second as captain in the win over the Maori All Blacks.
The two-time Lions boss said last night that his players would have to be more than just spoilers if they are to win Saturday’s series opener.
One of the facets of the tour wins against the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks over the last two Saturdays has been the Lions’ ability to shut down opponents who had previously been seen as possessing devastating and free-scoring backlines.
The Crusaders had gone into the Christchurch game averaging 37 points a game and were unbeaten in all 14 of their Super Rugby games this season, yet were kept tryless by the Lions.
The Maoris had threatened to cut loose but could not adjust to the rainy conditions and the Lions’ better game management as well as a rush defence its Super Rugby players were not used to, managing just one try — an opportunist one at that after a rare mistake in the backfield.
On Tuesday against the Chiefs in Hamilton, it was the same again as Gatland praised the way the Lions had “strangled the life” out of their opponents and kept his hometown team tryless.
That 34-6 win has also brought another dimension to the Lions play as the backline started to fizz, scoring a couple of outstanding tries that advanced the causes of both full-back Liam Williams and wing Elliot Daly, both named in the test back three yesterday alongside Anthony Watson.
He has picked a midfield partnership of Ben Te’o and Jon Davies, outside half-backs Owen Farrell and Conor Murray, with fly-half Johnny Sexton having to settle for a place on the bench despite his increasingly good form on this tour after a disappointing end to his season with Leinster.
The pack sees O’Mahony in a balanced back row that saw off both the Maoris and Crusaders alongside fellow Irishman Sean O’Brien and No8 Taulupe Faletau, one of the most impressive performers on the 2017 tour, while the expected all-England second row of Maro Itoje and George Kruis has not materialised. Gatland and his assistants have opted for the experience of Alun Wyn Jones, who captained the Lions to the series-clinching final test win over Australia four years ago, over Itoje, whose impact off the bench is likely to be more pronounced than that of the older Welshman.
Tadhg Furlong completes a quartet of starting Irishmen in a settled front row alongside Mako Vunipola at loosehead and hooker Jamie George, who will start a test for the Lions before doing so with England.
“The selection is based on form, for a lot of those players who played in the Crusaders and the Maori games and a few players put their hand up on Tuesday night as well, who played their way into the side,” said Gatland.
“We said there was an opportunity for players to do that and they did that.
“I’m also pretty pleased we’ve got some players with experience and who can come off the bench and give us some real impact. This is a nice blend, balance, and mix, and Peter had captained the side against the Maoris and done a good job.
“We’ve picked a team we think are capable of playing some exciting rugby. We’ve got to be able to be prepared to go and match the All Blacks. We’ve got to be excited about the 15 who take the field but also we’ve got a bench of strong, very experienced men, players who can make an impact.
“I’m very excited about the team, we know we’ve got to be good. We know we’ve strangled a couple of sides and we’re not going to deny that hasn’t been successful but we’ve also got to have the ability to go out and play.”
Gatland has picked seven test Lions in his starting XV and three more on a bench featuring Ireland loosehead Jack McGrath as well as fly-half Sexton. Also among the replacements is tour captain Sam Warburton, who continues his comeback from ankle and knee injuries that have restricted his game time since the beginning of April, his status as skipper not clouding Gatland’s commitment to picking on form.
Leigh Halfpenny, the goal-kicking hero of the 2013 series win over the Wallabies, gets the nod as outside backs replacement but has lost out to a more attack-minded full-back in fellow Welshman Liam Williams, one of Tuesday’s stars in the Chiefs win.
“It was a lively selection meeting,” said Gatland. “The win against the Chiefs was also extremely important for the squad and some players played themselves into the side.
“We have continuously been strong at set-piece and have been good defensively in the last two or three outings. But to beat the All Blacks you have to be courageous and play some rugby — you have to score tries and I think we have picked a team capable of doing that.
“Elliot has been very accurate in the way he has played and we saw some excellent attacking play from Liam on Tuesday night. We are excited about the 15 that take the field but also the very strong and experienced bench players who will have an impact.
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