Warren Gatland has thrown down a challenge to his Lions to get the tourists off to a winning start this Saturday after last night naming a strong team to face the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.
Sam Warburton, who led the Lions to their first series victory since 1997 four years ago in Australia, will captain the first matchday squad of the 2017 tour in Whangarei on Saturday in a side featuring three current Test captains, six 2013 Lions in the starting XV and three more on the bench.
Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones, Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and Ireland hooker Rory Best all skippered their countries during this season’s Six Nations and help to form a very strong spine of the team with Johnny Sexton will start at fly-half as another of the three Irishmen in head coach Gatland’s first selection of this 10-match tour. Iain Henderson is the other Irish and will make his Lions debut against the provincial side this weekend with tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong and outside back Jared Payne hoping to join the second row in earning their Lions numbers at the first opportunity.
Gatland had not anticipated being able to name such a strong line-up in the opening game but following shock domestic semi-final defeats for Leinster and Saracens a fortnight ago was given extra time in camp with a much larger body of players, 30 of his 41-man squad, for the second week of training at Carton House last week.
There will be four of Sarries’ five-strong contingent from the back-to-back European champions, all on the bench with only Maro Itoje omitted while it is a starting XV featuring all 14 of the players available to the Lions for the first week of training at the camp in the Vale of Glamorgan.
None of the 11 players involved in last weekend’s Pro12 and Premiership finals, from Scarlets, Munster, Exeter and Wasps, will be involved and will have to play catch up later on the tour in the battle for a Test place in the opening encounter with the All Blacks at Eden Park on June 24.
“You’re always excited about the first game on tour, and a bit apprehensive, but it’s a great opportunity, particularly for that starting XV, and the 23, to lay down a marker in terms of hopefully getting the tour off to a good start,” Gatland said.
“The advantage of the team that was selected was obviously that the players were together in that first week in Wales and then we had another group that came in for that week in Dublin as well, so it’s an opportunity for a few combinations that have worked together for a couple of weeks and to prepare for that first game.
“There’s some real experience there with Rory Best, Alun Wyn Jones, Greig Laidlaw and Johnny Sexton, and then Sam Warburton as captain. There’s a big responsibility on a lot of the experienced players and also the younger players to go out there and get the tour off to a good start, to start well and perform and get us off to a winning start.”
Taulupe Faletau will play at No.8 with a chance to stake a claim in the absence of Billy Vunipola, the Saracens and England powerhouse who was forced to withdraw due to injury on the eve of the tour and will feature in all-Welsh back row alongside captain and fellow 2013 Lion Warburton and debutant Ross Moriarty.
Harlequins and England props Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler form the front row with Best, while outside the Laidlaw-Sexton half-back combination is an all-English midfield pairing of Ben Te’o and Jonathan Joseph with a back three of their Test team-mate Anthony Watson and the Scottish duo Tommy Seymour and full-back Stuart Hogg.
Gatland also reiterated that the remainder of his squad rested this weekend would be involved for next Wednesday’s Eden Park clash with Super Rugby franchise the Blues.
“We have named a side that showcases a strong combination of experience and youth and we are really looking forward to Saturday.
“We’ve picked the team for Saturday but it is still the plan to try and give the whole squad a start in the next two matches. It is important the players get that opportunity because if they go well and the team goes well, they put themselves in the shop window for a Test start.”
LIONS (to play NZ Provincial Barbarians):
S Hogg (Glasgow/Scotland); A Watson (Bath/England), J Joseph (Bath/England), B Te’o (Worcester/England), T Seymour (Glasgow/Scotland); J Sexton (Leinster/Ireland), G Laidlaw (Gloucester/Scotland); J Marler (Harlequins/England), R Best (Ulster/Ireland), K Sinckler (Harlequins/England); A W Jones (Ospreys/Wales), I Henderson (Ulster/Ireland); R Moriarty (Gloucester/Wales), S Warburton (Cardiff/Wales) - captain, T Faletau (Bath/Wales).
J George (Saracens/England), M Vunipola (Saracens/England), T Furlong (Leinster/Ireland), G Kruis (Saracens/England), J Tipuric (Ospreys/ Wales), R Webb (Ospreys/ Wales), O Farrell (Saracens/England), Jared Payne (Ulster/Ireland).
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