Lions 2017: The Final 23

The last year of rugby culminates in this weekend’s big match: the series-deciding (and series-defining) third Test between the British and Irish Lions and the New Zealand All Blacks.

After a demoralising 30-15 loss in the first Test, the Lions took advantage of Sonny Bill Williams’ first half red card to draw the series level with a 24-21 victory. Williams’ 4-week ban means that Steve Hansen will be forced into making a change at 12 – possibly a first start for Ngani Laumape of the Hurricanes – after having already lost Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty to injury in the first Test. Waisake Naholo also failed a HIA in the second Test but I have not heard anything to suggest that he will be ruled out of the final Test. The Lions have been fairly lucky with injuries on this tour, however they have lost Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw and George North as the weeks have passed. Jared Payne has also been struggling throughout the tour, first with calf injuries and then in recent weeks with headaches. They did receive a boost, though, with the news that Sean O’Brien will receive no punishment for his part in Naholo’s head injury.

On my recent write-ups of the Lions games, I have tried to predict the 23 man squad for the next Test. As this will be the last time I do so for this tour, I decided to do something a little different. As well as predicting Gatland’s selections, I will also be showing the 23 I would pick if I was in his position. Obviously many of the positions will be the same, but there will also be some differences that could drastically affect the way the Lions play.

My Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Iain Henderson
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Jack Nowell

My predicted Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Alun Wyn Jones
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Johnny Sexton
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Iain Henderson
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Ben Te’o
  23. Jack Nowell

 

In both these squads, Mako Vunipola drops to the bench in favour of Jack McGrath. The coaches have already mentioned the importance of discipline – had Beauden Barrett been more accurate with his goal kicking, this weekend’s game would be a dead rubber – and Vunipola gave away almost a third of the Lions penalties, including a stupid late hit on Barrett and the illegal clean out that earned him a yellow card. His talent and his ability in the loose will keep him in the squad, but I see McGrath being given the chance to get at the All Blacks scrum from the start.

In the second row, Maro Itoje has to start, but there is a tough fight for the number 5 shirt. Alun Wyn Jones had a much better second Test and brings a lot of experience to the pack – which I think will give him the start in Gatland’s squad – but I worry that he could struggle if the game becomes as open as the first Test. Courtney Lawes has played well when given the chance but I feel that he will be kept as reinforcements from the bench. His yellow card aside, Iain Henderson was one of the best performers against the Hurricanes and brings a great combination of strength and dynamism tot he side. In my 23, I have paired the Ulsterman with Itoje, with Courtney Lawes ready to come on from the bench. Gatland has surprised us with at least 1 selection for each Test (Williams at 15 for the first, Farrell at 12 for the second) and I feel that the selection of Henderson on the bench alongside Courtney Lawes will be his surprise this time. His selection of Stander over O’Mahony last week suggests that the captain of the first Test has fallen down the pecking order, despite Stander having not had the best of tours. Itoje, Lawes and Henderson all have experience of playing 6 at international level so I think Gatland may pick two of them on the bench to give him more options inboth the second row and back row.

In the backs, I expect Gatland to stick with the Sexton/Farrell axis that won at the weekend, however I feel that this leaves the Lions too lightweight in the centre with players like Jerome Kaino, Naholo, Laumape and Ardie Savea likely to attack the 10/12 channel on a regular basis. Before going off in the second Test, Kaino had already successfully ran over the top of Farrell to make extra metres and as Laumape grew into the game, he and Savea were having some success making metres through the centre of the Lions defence. I therefore decided to pick Te’o at 12 to combat the All Blacks’ physicality, as he did when he kept Sonny Bill Williams marshalled in the first Test. Having a runner as strong as him in the back line also gives the Lions extra options in attack.

 

Regardless of the 23 men that Warren Gatland picks, you can be sure that they will be fired up and looking to do everything they can to win the series 2-1. Good luck to them!

 

What do you think of the squads? How do you feel each would do in the third Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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