From day one of his tenure as the head coach of the 2017 British and Irish Lions, Warren Gatland has preached the importance of a power-packed set of replacements to come into the game and either close out a victory or reel in a deficit.
The New Zealander is well aware of the fact that the All Blacks have long valued the strengths they derive from their in-game reinforcements, a point underlined only last Friday when the cavalry, including Charlie Faumuina, debutant Vaea Fifita, TJ Perenara, and Lima Sopoaga, arrived in the second half to heap even more misery on Samoa in a 78-0 hammering at Eden Park.
No wonder Gatland has repeatedly said: “We’ve got to match the All Blacks’ impact off the bench.”
After all the talk, the time has come to finalise just exactly who will be asked to match the home side’s formidable bench for an injection of power, creativity, leadership, and impact during the endgame of this upcoming Test series.
The starting XV looks pretty much settled, with the majority of those who featured in the past two Saturday’s victories over the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks expected to form the rump of the side for Saturday’s first Test in Auckland.
Yet Tuesday’s impressive victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton has given Gatland and his assistant coaches plenty to ponder when they sit down to pick a matchday 23 today.
Selecting those eight replacements may prove to be just as painstaking a process as the Test XV and the most likely vacancies still waiting to be filled appear to be at tighthead prop, lock, the back row, and the outside back.
At tighthead, Kyle Sinckler’s background as a centre turned prop appeared to have given him the dynamism that will make him a likely impact sub yet the 80-minute shift by fellow Englishman Dan Cole against the Chiefs yesterday may persuade the selectors the old head deserves a shot.
The second row cover to come in for either likely starter Maro Itoje and George Kruis looks like a three-way battle between Ireland’s fast improving Iain Henderson, England’s Courtney Lawes, and Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, while the back row replacement appears to be a straight shootout between CJ Stander and tour captain Sam Warburton, although the Welshman’s status as skipper on his second Lions tour may make him a threat to either of the flanker positions.
Warburton’s inclusion on the bench might also persuade Gatland he does not require the presence of senior figure Alun Wyn Jones.
Which leaves the race for the outside back replacement.
Until yesterday, Gatland had been deeply disappointed by the collective showing from his back three players, with the exception of full-back Leigh Halfpenny. Anthony Watson and George North were the starting wings against the Maori and are favourites to start Saturday’s first Test but North, in particular, has not hit his straps on this tour.
Against the Chiefs, Gatland got enthusiastic performances from all his back three, English wings Jack Nowell, who scored two tries, and Elliot Daly and full-back Liam Williams. Daly is the only one of that trio to have made a previously good impression. Nowell finally produced for the Lions with a few tries in Hamilton to live up to Gatland’s billing for the Exeter flyer.
It should make for quite the discussion at the Lions’ hotel in Auckland.
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