Lions team to face New Zealand: Gatland makes correct calls
Warburton and Halfpenny on the bench, North in the stands as coach picks O'Mahony, Williams and Daly
Lions coach Warren Gatland has named his starting XV for the first Test against New Zealand on Saturday and there's no place for tour captain Sam Warburton. The Wales flanker is on the bench and instead Ireland's Peter Peter O'Mahony will lead the Lions into action in Auckland.
There is also no place in the team for Wales wing George North and his international teammate Leigh Halfpenny and Gatland has selected his side on form and not reputation.
The three Welshmen all featured in the Lions side that beat Australia four years ago but none has been in outstanding form recently prompting Gatland to take the courageous but correct decision to hand caps to those who are at the top of their game, even if they lack the experience of their colleagues.
Consequently of Saturday's XV, only second row Alun Wyn Jones, number eight Taulupe Faletau and flanker Sean O'Brien started the last Lions Test, against the Wallabies in 2013.
“We have picked a side based on form, with a lot of players putting their hands up, especially from the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks games, and it was a lively selection meeting," said Gatland in announcing his team. "We are excited about the 15 that take the field, but also the very strong and experienced bench players who will have an impact."
As for his decision to select O'Mahony as captain, Gatland said: "It’s a reward for how the back row has gone. There is a nice balance there, while Peter captained the side against the Maori All Blacks and has done a good job."
Ditching Warburton for O'Mahony is a controversial choice by Gatland but it's the right one given that the Welshmen hasn't been at his sharpest since returning from a knee injury.
On the 1983 Lions tour to New Zealand, the captain was Irish hooker Ciaran Fitzgerald, an inferior player to Scotland's Colin Deans who should have started the Tests. He didn't and the Lions suffered as a result, losing the series 4-0.
Along with O'Mahony's nomination as captain, the other surprises are Welshman Liam Williams inclusion at full-back ahead of Halfpenny, and the selection of England's Elliot Daly on the wing. Anthony Watson is the other wing in a fast back three that has been selected to combat the pace of the All Blacks out wide.
In contrast, Gatland has gone for power in his midfield, selecting England's Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies of Wales at centre, with Owen Farrell fit to wear the number ten shirt.
In the pack, Saracens hooker Jamie George is selected, despite the fact he spent the Six Nations on the England bench, understudying for Dylan Hartley, but there is no spot for club teammate Maro Itoje in the second row. Instead Gatland has gone with the experience of Jones, who will partner England's George Kruis.
There has been criticism of the decision to leave out Itoje. But he has the potential to be a dynamic and game changing force from the bench - more so that the more solid Jones.
The All Blacks have also revealed their team for Saturday's highly-anticipated clash at Eden Park, and as expected numner eight Kieran Read returns despite being sidelined since April with a broken thumb.
But there is no room in the New Zealand XV for experienced wing Julian Savea with coach Steve Hansen giving a first start to Rieko Ioane. "His outstanding form throughout the season this year, including against the Lions, has earned him his start on the wing," said Hansen.
New Zealand haven't lost a Test match at Eden Park since 1994 and although they go into Saturday's match as clear favourites, Hansen warned against complacency. "We know this is a very good British and Irish Lions team, probably one of the best to have toured here," he said. "We know the importance of this match and we will bring real energy and intensity. It'll be a physical Test but, just as importantly, it will be a mental test."
Lions vs All Blacks: The key decisions for Warren Gatland
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland will tonight name his team for the crucial first Test against the All Blacks, but it is not a cut-and-dried decision.
Not all the squad are in form and several second-string players made a big statement of intent against the Waikato Chiefs on Tuesday.
It leaves Gatland and his side with several questions to ponder.
Wing: Daly vs North
Anthony Watson is expected to start on one wing, "but the other spot is seemingly a head-to-head between George North and Elliot Daly", says the Daily Telegraph.
Despite being seen as a surefire pick for the Tests, North has been anonymous so far in New Zealand and his place in the team could be in serious danger.
Both Daly and Jack Nowell excelled against the Waikato Chiefs. While Nowell scored twice, the fact Gatland took Daly off after an hour suggests he is the man most likely to challenge North.
But he may have to make do with a place on the bench, says Owen Slot of The Times.
"If Daly is to make it into the squad, it would probably be with the number 23 shirt on his back… It may be harder for Daly to shift North from a start on the left wing than it is to get in front of Jonathan Joseph, his England team-mate, who appears to be the likely option to cover a number of positions off the bench. Daly's versatility also works in his favour."
Full back: Does Halfpenny deserve it?
Like North, Halfpenny has been a key lieutenant for Gatland down the years and is the obvious choice at full back with Stuart Hogg ruled out of the tour. His kicking remains impeccable, but he has not scored an international try since the 2013 Six Nations.
The only other realistic options, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, are not goal kickers and with Owen Farrell nursing a thigh problem, there is no alternative to Halfpenny and his trusty boot.
Second row: Jones feels the heat
Yet another Welshman in danger of missing out is Alun-Wyn Jones. Before the tour, "it appeared inconceivable" he would not start the Test series, says the Telegraph. "However, that is now a realistic possibility, given the form of Saracens second-row pair Maro Itoje and George Kruis."
Not only that, but his place on the bench could be under threat from Courtney Lawes, who made a statement of intent against the Chiefs, says Dan Jones of the London Evening Standard. "He looked like he could cover both second-row spots on his own. He was commanding in the line-out and near-demonic in the loose."
Fly half - inside centre: Guile or power?
Owen Farrell has overcome his thigh strain and will be fit, but where does that leave Jonny Sexton in the fly-half equation?
He has come into form as the tour has progressed and played well with Farrell against Crusaders, so could Gatland opt for a fluid arrangement with Sexton in the ten jersey and Farrell as an auxiliary playmaker at centre?
No, says Owen Slot of the Times, and that is down to the power of centre Ben Te'o, who has been the biggest bolter of the tour and has come from nowhere to earn a place in the Test team.
The option of picking both Sexton and Farrell remains, but "with Te'o looking so good, Gatland is expected to revert to the dual playmaker system only if a Plan B is required, meaning Farrell will start at fly half, with Sexton likely to be named on the bench".
Captain: Where's Warburton?
The Lions are being led on this tour by Wales flanker Sam Warburton, who might not make the Test side.
Warburton has "struggled for consistent form and fitness", says the Telegraph. "Ireland flankers Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien are currently tearing it up, and they are favourites to start, with Munster blindside O'Mahony probably being named as first Test skipper."
One of Warburton's attributes is his humility and he will not begrudge passing the captaincy on and will be happy with a place on the bench.