Peter O’Mahony’s suitability to lead the Lions into the first Test against New Zealand on Saturday has been endorsed by defence coach Andy Farrell as the tour management prepares to sit down and select its starting XV for Eden Park.
Head coach Warren Gatland and his assistants, including Farrell - who is also Ireland’s defence coach - will sit down tomorrow to finalise the matchday 23 for the Test series opener in Auckland against the world champions.
Many of the starting positions appear to have been filled with O’Mahony featuring strongly in the back rows alongside Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau that helped deliver victories on the last two Saturdays over Super Rugby kingpins the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks.
And with tour captain and back rower Sam Warburton lacking game time following knee and ankle injuries and Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones also undercooked after his own fitness issues, the path looks clear for O’Mahony to step up in this Saturday’s first clash of three against Steve Hansen’s all-conquering side.
The Munster captain led the Lions to a record victory over the Maori in Rotorua last Saturday and spoke of what it meant to him and his family. His father John watched the game from the stands having arrived in New Zealand on the eve of the game.
The blindside flanker also pronounced himself good to go despite having received treatment on his knee before half-time, eventually being replaced by Warburton after 63 minutes.
O’Mahony, too, made the most of his opportunity as captain, an inspirational figure in terms of work-rate and the “Munster mongrel” he brought to the side as desired by his head coach before the match.
It left Andy Farrell certain that O’Mahony has what it takes to lead the Test side this weekend.
“I’d be more than comfortable with a number of players being able to do that. To be honest, it’d be the easiest team to captain because there’s so many leaders out there.
“What the guys who have captained the side so far have realised is they don’t have to be vocal all the time because there’s always people that are helping them out and I think the balance has been great so far.”
Lions back rower James Haskell, who was wearing the number six jersey against the Chiefs at FMG Stadium Waikato, offered a similar view from inside the playing group.
The Englishman, a late call-up following the pre-tour withdrawal of Billy Vunipola, could only speak with admiration of the players who seem to have denied him a place in the Test back row.
“Taulupe Faletau has been fantastic, Sean O’Brien has been excellent and Ross Moriarty showed in the first game why he’s on the tour. And Pete led by example the other night,” Haskell said yesterday.
“They are all fantastic and offer a big point of difference. It’s probably Sean O’Brien or Peter O’Mahony that I’d be slightly concerned about (in terms of competition for places).
Not necessarily because of the physical thing – but because they are completely mental. So I’d be worried if I took them on what might happen to me in the car park later on!
“I’ve been sharing a room with Sean all tour, and we’ve bonded, to say the least. But it’s those two I’d have to put my hand up and say I’d be concerned about.”
Yet ahead of tomorrow’s selection meeting nothing is set in stone, Farrell said yesterday: “That’s the way it has to be.... The door is never closed.”
There would appear to be three major conversations for Gatland and assistants to conduct.
In the back row, the ringfencing of tour captain Sam Warburton from playing duty against the Chiefs this morning means there is still a chance the former Wales skipper could start in the Lions pack at Eden Park, which would be tough on either of the Irishmen, blindside flanker O’Mahony or openside O’Brien.
If the back row that defeated the Crusaders and Maori is retained, Warburton’s leadership off the bench would be seen by Gatland as potentially crucial although CJ Stander would perhaps offer bigger impact to match the strength of the All Blacks bench.
Warburton’s inclusion as a replacement may also have ramifications for the covering lock position with Alun Wyn Jones struggling against the Highlanders on his last outing.
His leadership qualities are unquestioned but if his predecessor as Wales captain gets the nod, it might call for the impact of Iain Henderson off the bench and into the second row as the clock ticks down.
Midfield is another area for discussion. If, as seems likely, Owen Farrell is fit for the first Test, the question is where to play him and who misses out as a result.
As well as Farrell’s partnership as an inside centre on the shoulder of fly-half Johnny Sexton worked for 50 minutes against the Crusaders, Gatland appears sold on the qualities of Ben Te’o in the number 12 jersey, as much to counter the considerable threat of opposite number Sonny Bill Williams as to get the Lions over the gainline.
A Farrell-Te’o axis in midfield with Jonathan Davies at outside centre seems to be the preference with Sexton waiting in the wings to slot in at 10 and partner Farrell later on, but be prepared for Gatland to spring a surprise in this area of the field.
With his back three options, the head coach expected to be spoilt for choice with a plethora of dangerous strike runners.
That was certainly the case when the Lions squad was unveiled in April. Leigh Halfpenny’s goal-kicking has put him in prime position to start at full-back, providing he comes through the return to play protocols required after he presented with symptoms of a concussion after the Maori game last Saturday.
As for the wings, Anthony Watson and George North seem set to continue where they left off against the Maori and though North has been far from dazzling Gatland has not seen enough from the other contenders to dislodge the Wales wing.
He has spoken very highly of Jack Nowell, calling the Exeter flyer the best wing in the Northern Hemisphere at running lines off the shoulders of the half-backs, yet the England man has failed to make such an impact on tour. Elliot Daly appears next in line and would offer the Lions back division its sole left kicking boot but North seems set to be given a chance to redeem himself.
All will be revealed tomorrow night, with the matchday squad scheduled to be announced at 8pm Irish time.
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 (captain), S O’Brien, T Faletau.
K Owens, J McGrath, K Sinckler, AW Jones/I Henderson, S Warburton/CJ Stander, R Webb, J Sexton, E Daly.
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