Lions 2017: Five players with a realistic chance of making the Second Test squad
Changes are expected for the Second Test, with Warren Gatland looking for the winning formula against a formidable All Blacks side, so who's in pole position?
Super Rugby’s great entertainers, the Hurricanes lie in wait for the Lions this evening, with a power-packed side feature a smattering of All Blacks including Julian Savea, Nehe-Milner Skudder and the youngest Barrett boy, Jordie. Warren Gatland has demanded a response after a troubling 30-15 loss and changes are expected to the matchday 23 for the Westpac on Saturday. These are a few players who have a genuine chance of forcing their way into his plans…
One area the Lions struggled badly in the first Test was the breakdown and Rory Best has often acted as an auxilliary flanker, with countless turnovers for Ulster and Ireland – he is extremely strong over the ball. Coupled with the experience earned with 104 caps, Best’s tackle count regularly hits double-figures and Gatland trusts him to lead the Lions into a game which he hopes will re-energise a squad deflated by a Test loss.
Neither Jamie George or Ken Owen were error free at Eden Park, with Owens missing a key lineout, and Jamie George being outshone by Codie Taylor, on the Saracens’ first Test start. A big performance by the Ulsterman could earn him a bench spot in front of the watching Best clan.
Warren Gatland is rumoured to be a confirmed admirer of the Exeter Chief and despite an inauspicious Lions bow against the Provincial Barbarians, where he made countless mistakes, he has improved as the tour has progressed. His performance against the Chiefs a week ago was eye-catching.
He scored two tries and was a picture of industry, coming off his wing, looking for the ball and carrying for 57 metres. Deployed at full-back for the Hurricanes game, Gatland will be studying his positioning, strength under the high-ball and broken-field running before deciding whether to keep Liam Williams in situ, or stick with the reliable Leigh Halfpenny.
North, the star of the 2013 Lions Series, has had a low-key tour, playing in only two games, against the Crusaders and the New Zealand Maori. While he was defensively sound against the ‘Saders, he offered little in attack, didn’t challenge for high-balls and made very little yardage. The audition for the First Test against the Maori, he fluffed his lines, failing to deal with a routine defensive clean-up, going down to collect the ball and gifting Liam Messam a try.
For a player of North’s undoubted stature – he was considered a shoe-in for the Test team – it will be fascinating to see how he responds mentally to being dropped for the first time in his career. His class and match-winning ability are beyond question but he needs to re-find his mojo, go looking for the ball in midfield and make some line-breaks. With Julian Savea parked opposite him, it could prove an intriguing evening at the Westpac.
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Warren Gatland name checked Courtney Lawes at the press conference for the Hurricanes game, saying he’d had a very good tour. While he selected the triumvirate of starters Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis and Maro Itoje from the bench, the common concensus is that spots are up for grabs in the engine room.
The explosive Lawes, arguably England’s most improved player of the last 12 months, knows a game where he plays to his strengths – namely high tackle-count, destructive collisions and consistency at the set-piece – give him every chance of forcing his way into the matchday 23 for Saturday, especially with Jones and Kruis not enjoying their best games against the majestic Brodie Retallick and Courtney Lawes. The fact that he can play at blindside only adds to his versatility.
Jonathan Joseph has endured a roller-coaster first Lions experience. Long rumoured to be overlooked for a squad place, he found his name parachuted in late-on, and after an indifferent performance against the Provincial Barbarians (he was not alone), he has flitted around the squad, without much of an impact so far.
A few injury niggles haven’t helped his cause, but days before the First Test, having been ommitted from the squad for the Chiefs, he admitted that hopes were high that he’d made the Test 23 – and he admitted there was a sense of frustration that he yet again, missed out to Leigh Halfpenny for the 23 shirt.