The British and Irish Lions side to face the Chiefs on Tuesday was revealed overnight and in doing, it all but confirms who Lions boss Warren Gatland will turn to on Saturday against the All Blacks.
Having called up six additional players to the Lions squad over the weekend, Gatland has included them all as replacements in the squad set to face the Super Rugby side.
Starting against the Chiefs, Gatland has turned to an experienced, if obviously under-strength side.
ICYMI: The Lions team has been announced for #CHIvBIL…
— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) June 18, 2017
With the exception of CJ Stander and Courtney Lawes, the starting XV for the Chiefs clash appeared to be out of the running for the Test 23 from early on in the tour.
It was the squad named for the Crusaders victory in game three that had all the feeling of a real Test side. Rotated back out for game four, another loss, against the Highlanders, roughly the same ‘Test’ squad returned for the emphatic blow-out of the Maori All Blacks on Saturday.
Now, in the last clash before the first Test on Saturday, those Maori victors are rested once more and it must be presumed that most, if not all, will now feature against the All Blacks.
If the logic, backed up by the performances hold, could this then be the Lions XV for the All Blacks clash on Saturday?
A number of positional questions remain ahead of the squad announcement later this week.
With the return of Owen Farrell to fitness following a quadricep strain, serious options at out-half or at inside centre are available to Lions boss Gatland. Will he be favoured over Sexton and Te’o, who both had strong outings against the Maori, or will he be one hell of an impact sub?
In the battle for the No. 2 jersey, Jamie George has started both of the Lions’ assured victories over the Crusaders and the Maori. He has formed a solid relationship with his two props, Vunipola and Furlong and with these three fronting up together, the Lions scrum has been extremely impressive.
Since Ken Owens is missing for the Chiefs clash, he is, therefore, all but certain of a place in the Test 23. The only question is whether Gatland will break up his tried and tested front row and give him the start ahead of George?
Similar questions are to be answered in the second and back rows. Sam Warburton is being rested for the Chiefs encounter so must also be assumed they are being considered for the All Blacks challenge on Saturday.
Alun Wyn Jones will take his place on the bench for the Chiefs clash, with Iain Henderson starting in the second row alongside Courtney Lawes. Does this mean that Gatland is keeping the veteran Wales captain as fresh as possible for the All Blacks clash?
Warburton’s status of squad captain and Jones’ vast experience will likely count in their favour when the squad is selected. The only question is whether Warburton will be favoured over the imperious Peter O’Mahony on the blindside and if Jones can elbow his way in ahead of Itoje or Kruis in the second row.
On the back of their Maori All Blacks victory, it is certainly difficult to see how any of these could or should be given the nod and the more logical and, perhaps fair, call would be to have them on the bench, ready to come on as impact subs if and when needed.
Speculation will be building all week ahead of the squad announcement on Thursday and all eyes will now be on Gatland to see if he keeps faith with his Maori conquerors or mix it up once more.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena