Peter O’Mahony has been asked to provide some ‘Munster mongrel’ to the Lions tomorrow as the tourists bid to get their New Zealand odyssey back on track against the toughest non-Test opposition of the tour.
The Lions have arrived in Crusaders country on the back of Wednesday’s dramatic defeat to the Blues at Auckland’s Eden Park and will have to topple Super Rugby’s most storied and in-form side if they are to start building momentum towards the first Test against the All Blacks 15 days from now.
The size of the task facing them at Christchurch’s AMI Stadium was brought home loud and clear yesterday as Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson named a side containing an all-All Black front five in the pack as they attempt to inflict back-to-back defeats on the 2017 Lions and stretch their winning streak this year to 15 wins in as many starts.
The Lions, meanwhile, are looking for a first commanding performance of their tour with head coach Warren Gatland keen to see a dominant back row finally stamp its authority on a game after losing the collision battle in the first half of the 17-13 win over the Provincial Barbarians last Saturday and contribute to poor breakdown discipline against the Blues as the overall penalty count reached 13.
To that end, he has selected Munster captain O’Mahony at blindside flanker for a first start of the tour after a debut off the bench at Eden Park and named fellow Irishman Sean O’Brien at openside in his first appearance since Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final win over Wasps in April 1.
The Irish flankers will pack down with No. 8 Taulupe Faletau and Gatland is looking forward to seeing them realise their potential as a unit.
“The mix of the back row looks quite exciting. We talked about the balance and the lineout option and we know how good Peter O’Mahony is at lineout time,” Gatland said. “I hope he brings a bit of that Munster mongrel on Saturday night.”
O’Mahony, who became Lion No. 833 on Wednesday when he replaced James Haskell for the final 23 minutes, seemed bemused by Gatland’s request when asked about it later on in the Lions media session at their Christchurch hotel.
“You’re going to have to put that in a better context now, what exactly did he say?” O’Mahony asked before reading between the lines.
“Look, to be successful over here we’re going to have to get stuck in and we’re going to have to be physical. I’m hoping that’s what he meant because as a back row, I suppose, as a pack, it’s a thing you don’t need talent for. You can put your head down and just work hard and I think that’s going to be a very important part if we’re going to be successful, a huge part.”
Gatland said he was also looking forward to see O’Brien play. The Leinster man is one of four players making his first appearance of the tour tomorrow. Fellow 2013 veterans Conor Murray, Jon Davies and George North come into a backline that will need to show much more creativity and cutting edge than has been on display so far on this New Zealand adventure.
Scrum-half Murray partners England fly-half Owen Farrell in the half-backs while Davies will wear the No. 13 jersey he occupied for the series-clinching win over Australia four years ago, albeit in a new midfield partnership with England’s former Leinster man Ben Te’o.
After pairing Te’o with England team-mate Jonathan Joseph in game one and then Irish duo Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne against the Blues, Gatland made it clear he is still searching for his Test combination to tame the All Blacks.
“Ben Te’o played well in the first game. We didn’t pick him as somebody we wanted to crash up. We picked him because he has got more to his game than that with his offloading ability. He has got some good footwork and is explosive. He’s a good strong defensive player in that 12 area. Jonathan Davies has been playing really well over the last few weeks for the Scarlets. He brings that experience. When it comes to picking the Test side, that’s going to be one of the hardest positions for us to pick, getting that combination right. You’ve got Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph.
“You can put Elliot Daly in there. I thought he looked good last night (on the wing) and we are looking forward to seeing him having another run out. The midfield is going to be one of the toughest calls for us on tour, getting the balance and combination right.”
Gatland gave Payne a positive injury report after he limped out against the Blues with a tightened calf muscle that was not a recurrence of his previous injury, although he added: “He has got probably the skinniest calves in world rugby.”
I Dagg; S Tamanvivalu, Jack Goodhue, D Havili, G Bridge; R Mo’unga, B Hall; J Moody, C Taylor, O Franks; L Romano, S Whitelock (capt); H Bedwell-Curtis, M Todd, J Taufua.
B Funnell, W Crockett, M Alaalatoa, Q Strange, J Brown, M Drummond, M Hunt, T Bateman.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS:
S Hogg (Scotland); G North (Wales), J Davies (Wales), B Te’o (England), L Williams (Wales); O Farrell (England), C Murray (Ireland); M Vunipola (England), J George (England), T Furlong (Ireland); A W Jones (Wales, capt), G Kruis (England); P O’Mahony (Ireland), S O’Brien (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).
K Owens (Wales), J McGrath (Ireland), D Cole (England), M Itoje (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), R Webb (Wales), J Sexton (Ireland), A Watson (England).
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