It’s About Combinations and Balance for Warren Gatland

    ROTORUA, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 17: Owen Farrell looks on during the match between the New Zealand Maori and the British & Irish Lions at Rotorua International Stadium on June 17, 2017 in Rotorua, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

    Many scenarios and combinations have been suggested over the last few weeks, and none more so than centre and back row. We have recently learned that a different set of combinations may now be required from Warren Gatland if Owen Farrell is out due to injury for an extended time.

    Farrell Injury a Massive Blow to Lions First Test Selection

    Gatland has said he wishes to wrap Farrell in cotton wool, so one question’s why Farrell was down on subs bench for the Highlanders game only four days after big game against Crusaders. Surely this was far from ideal, but now it is understood that Farrell has a quadriceps injury he picked up in training. This is a massive blow to Lions test selection has an impact on 1st Test Selection.

    He (Farrell) had to be in the running for starting first test and, with Jonny Sexton’s indifferent form, Owen Farrell could well have been starting at fly half. Time will tell this week as to whether he will be fit, but it will be a risk to play him if he is not 100%.

    Even before the plane had left for New Zealand many predicted the halfback partnership would be Connor Murray (scrum half) and Jonny Sexton (fly half). Much has changed though on this tour and it’s why no one can predict form and injuries that will occur.

    So what has changed ?

    Form is a major factor and with it confidence. Sexton’s indifferent form has been a concern and it’s a case of finding the right balance with half back and centre partnerships.  It may well now mean that Sexton comes into starting line up at fly half . Gatland may have been debating at playing Sexton/Farrell at 10/12 time will tell over next few days if this continues to be an option, should Farrell recover. It also brings raises the question as to who would be the preferred back-up fly half, should Farrell not be fit – Dan Bigger might be the best bet.

    Ben Te’o has shown just what a powerful runner he can be fitting into Gatland’s type of inside centre role. Stuart Hogg was on shortlist of starting full back though he is now out due to facial injury , so who will come in to play full back and Sam Warburton ( Lions Captain) is struggling with an injury and gaining enough game time. Time is running out to narrow this down.

    It’s About Combinations and Balance for Warren Gatland

    Full Back
    With Hogg out, Lions need a player to be controlled under high ball, assured in defence, and make yardage. This would go a long way in helping to add another dimension to the attack. Anthony Watson fits this bill, and Leigh Halfpenny gives another option and is an excellent kicker. If Farrell is out of first test then Gatland may go for full back with kicking option, or bring Dan Biggar onto the bench as backup fly half.

    Half Backs
    Sexton was already lacking form and this has come at wrong time for him bringing Farrell into the running. No one knows how this could have work out as Gatland may have gone for Farrell to start and Sexton as a sub. Playing both though, whilst giving balance defensively, is the wrong combination as the All Blacks will target Sexton’s weaker defensive qualities. Connor Murray has linked well Owen Farrell and this surely would be the preferred starting partnership.

    Ben Te’o has grown in strength on this tour, and fully deserves a shot at inside centre. He fits into Gatland’s gameplan and will break the gainline. He needs to get better hands and look for offloads, but his combination with a dynamic onside centre like Jonathan Joseph would give balance. Jonathan Davies will be the preferred option as he brings extra power good hands, line breaks and defensive play.

    Jack Nowell has had torrid time and this after playing so well in Premiership. Liam Williams is another who is out of confidence and not yet bringing his sharpness to current performances. George North you can never underestimate and Elliot Daly brings with his game the long-range kicking option.

    Back Row
    The balance was perfect against Crusaders and should to retained even if it means Sam Warburton misses out. Sean O’Brien is stronger option though will Gatland keep his loyalty to his valid servant in Warburton.

    Second Row
    Many options here and Lions are blessed with great players in this position: Iain Henderson, Courtney Lawes, and Maro Itoje . Gatland would suspect look towards combinations and balance of Alun Wyn Jones /George Kruis starting and Itoje /Lawes as impact subs

    Front Row
    Ken Owens is first choice. Though Rory Best brings experience, Owens has the edge. Best could miss out altogether as Jamie George adds pace. Props may retain the tried and tested option of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong. This is a very tight selection criteria with Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler as impact bench in last quarter of the game with a perfect balance.

    It is the most talked about selection for many a year as to halt the All Blacks you have to cut down space and time on the ball with a fast up defense. You have to take your chances when they come, which is something Lions are not yet doing.The best form of defense they say is attack so they will need players who have the skill set to deliver from front row to backs. The rugby world cannot wait now for June 24th and first test selection will be crucial. If Gatland and his coaches can get this right with a gameplan to match, then Lions may stand a chance.

    The debate will continue and it’s one of the special of ingredients of a Lions Tour—no one can predict with any certainty a player’s form. Coaches’ selections leading up to the Test make it the most intriguing of tours.

    Predicted 1st Test Selection

    FULL BACK – 15 Anthony Watson

    WING – 14 George North 11 – Elliot Daly

    HALF BACKS – 9 Connor Murray and 10 Jonny Sexton (Farrell replaces if fit )

    CENTRES – 12 Ben Te’o and 13 Jonathan Davies

    BACK ROW – 6 Peter O’Mahony, 8 Taulupe Faletau 7 Sean O’Brien

    SECOND ROW – 4 Alun Wyn Jones (captain) 5 George Kruis

    FRONT ROW – 1 Jack McGrath – 2Ken Owens – 3 Tadha Furlong

    Maro Itoje (Second Row) – Mako Vunipola (Prop)- Kyle Sinckler (Prop) – Jamie George (Hooker) – Liam Williams (Winger FB )- Rhys Webb (SH)- Back Row CJ Stander…FH Dan Biggar (if Farrell is not fit, Leigh Halfpenny if fit)

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