With four games played and a mixed return of two wins and two defeats the Lions have reached a critical juncture as they prepare to take on the New Zealand Maoris on Saturday.
While the results have been mixed there could be little doubt that Warren Gatland has learned a lot about his squad over the past four games as all members of the squad have made at least one Test start. While the Welsh coach might deny such claims there could be little doubt he came to New Zealand with his planned Test time in mind, however the performances of some on the tour both good and bad so far have no doubt changed his plans somewhat.
While some have solidified their place as a potential starter and others have forced their way into reckoning we can also look at how these four players have underperformed and as such have all but ensured they wont be in Gatland’s plans for the first Test on June 24.
3. Greig Laidlaw
The Scotland captain was seen as unlucky in the view of many when he lost out to Ben Youngs in the battle for the third scrum half slot, however, due to Youngs’ withdrawal under such sad circumstances, Laidlaw was given his chance. The Scottish captain had a solid Six Nations campaign before it was cut short due to injury as his leadership and experience was vital in guiding a young Scottish backline.
However, for Laidlaw things have not worked out as he may have hoped in New Zealand. The speed of his delivery has been a major issue for the Lions on the tour as the Clermont-bound man has failed to replicate the tempo that both Conor Murray and Rhys Webb have brought to proceedings. Similarly, he fails to bring the sniping threat around the breakdown that the other scrum halves offer.
With Murray seemingly nailed on after his superb showing against the Crusaders and Webb’s pace and danger in broken field seemingly locking him in to back up Murray as a potential impact sub Greig Laidlaw seems destined to spend the rest of the tour as a midweek player only.
2. Jack Nowell
When selected for the tour there was a real sense of excitement about what Jack Nowell could bring to the party, however as four games have passed the England international has failed to grasp the opportunities presented to him. The Exeter winger seemed tailor made for this tour as his aggressive attacking style combined with his eye for a gap in defences had some earmarking him as a player who could genuinely worry the All Blacks defence.
Nowell came on tour on the back of a successful season at club and international level, however the one game we saw him struggle in during the Six Nations was against Ireland when Joe Schmidt’s men targeted the Exeter man and found some success, and the opposition in New Zealand also seem to see him as a weak point they can expose.
He was badly caught out on numerous occasions against the Blues as Ioane dotted the ball down three times down Nowell’s wing despite two being disallowed. While he did improve against the Highlanders he failed to offer the attacking spark he has become known for. While the attacking talent is still there the fear with Nowell is his defensive work and how he can be caught out when he is turned and teams can kick in behind him. The Exeter man also doesn’t offer the solidity under the high ball that other wings do and with contestable box kicks likely to be a key component of the Lions’ game plan it seems unlikely that Nowell will be involved in the first Test.
1. James Haskell
Haskell, much like Laidlaw, was not selected in Gatland’s original squad and, as such, was always going to have a difficult time forcing his way into the Test side, while the fact that Haskell was to replace a player of the quality of Billy Vunipola did little to make his task any easier.
After having an impressive Six Nations under Eddie Jones and having played club rugby in New Zealand before there was hope that Haskell could become a key part of the squad, although that has not materialised as we would have hoped. Haskell brings a physicality to any game he is involved in, however over the course of the two games he has started he has failed to do a whole lot to catch the eye.
While Haskell starts at 7 for England he simply does not offer the same level of breakdown skills or work around the field of Warburton, O’Brien or Tipuric, while as a 6 he can’t match the lineout prowess of O’Mahony or the destructive ball carrying and work rate of both Stander or O’Brien, meaning the Wasps man will be all but certain to be outside the 23 for the Test matches.
Andrew Byrne, Pundit Arena