Warren Gatland has revealed his Lions Test hand and it’s fair to say the selection took many by surprise.
Elliot Daly, Ali Price and Jack Conan? Anyone wanting to take a punt three months ago on those three in the starting XV might have been offered roughly the same odds on Garndiffaith RFC winning the Heineken Champions Cup.
But, credit the three, they have all played well on tour.
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Is there another quality Lions XV that could be assembled, though, made up of those in South Africa who haven’t made the starting line-up this time?
We think there is. And it looks just as strong, in many ways, as the team Gatland has chosen.
Indeed, some might argue it is even better in certain areas of the side.
This is it.
15. Liam Williams, 14. Louis-Rees Zammit,11. Josh Adams.
It’s the area of Gatland’s team that has sparked most debate, with Adams’ omission shocking many.
It is hard to imagine a player playing as well as Adams being omitted by the Lions in many a long day.
True, he isn’t 6ft 4in and 16st 7lb like Duhan van der Merwe.
But he has scored eight tries in four tour games, defends well, chases hard and achieve turnovers.
In a game of Top Trumps, he is someone most would be pleased to call on.
The 20-year-old flier is still learning the game but he has acquitted himself well over the past month and will return home a better player. His pace would enhance any side.
Then there’s Williams, completing an all-Welsh back three.
Combative, good under the high ball and a bold counter-attacker, he is a player who can lift those around him.
Stuart Hogg and Anthony Watson have the shirts for Saturday, but the Wales stars certainly wouldn’t look out of place in Cape Town.
13. Chris Harris,12. Bundee Aki.
No soft centres here.
Aki is a tough nut who doesn’t miss many tackles and runs hard. He’s also won more turnovers — five — than any other Lions back on this trip.
Harris isn’t the worst to have alongside him.
The direct and physical Scot has had a good tour, making ground with ball in hand and defending well. When it comes to achieving success on the gainline, no other Lions centre in the class of 2021 has done it better than the 30-year-old.
10. Owen Farrell,9. Conor Murray.
Murray may not have been in vintage form in South Africa but he showed against England in the Six Nations he still has a world-class kicking game.
The 32-year-old also has a sharp tactical brain.
Just maybe, he could have risen to the occasion had he been named in the run-on XV this weekend.
Farrell also has to be content with a place on the bench.
Again, he hasn’t been at his best recently, but he is a battle-hardened player opponents respect, he has good hands, is tactically sound and, like Dan Biggar, he is a world-class goal-kicker.
Gatland has plumped for the form pairing of Price and Biggar.
1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler.
Not a bad little line-up here.
What can be said about Vunipola?
He is a prop who’s capable of banging in 25 tackles and 20 carries in a single game, figures that front-rowers from yesteryear would have been astonished by.
He can handle, turn over opposition ball and isn’t the worst scrummager.
His Saracens team-mate George was the unlucky hooker when the matchday 23 was named, losing out to Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ken Owens. Any one of the three could have been chosen with complete confidence as a starter.
Then there’s Sinckler, another front rower with a big appetite for work, evidenced by the 32 tackles he has made in South Africa, with not a single one missed.
Wyn Jones and Tadhg Furlong are the chosen props, and rightly so, but the three England front-rowers listed above are class acts in their own right.
4. Adam Beard, 5. Jonny Hill.
Okay, you cannot argue with the world class qualities of Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones.
Itoje was a Test shoo-in; Alun Wyn is the captain extraordinaire.
Beard and Hill aren’t in that class, but they have had fine tours.
Indeed, it’s not pushing it to suggest Beard has been a revelation to some: top drawer in the lineouts, as good as it gets at defensive mauls, mobile, skilful, a strong defender and a purposeful carrier.
When the Lions head for Australia in 2025, he’ll be seen as a potential Test starter. Maybe he might even sneak a cap on this tour.
Adam Beard (right) competes for the ball with Jonny Hill during a Lions training session
(Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan)
Hill has been strong as well with his tireless grafting.
He’s a ferocious competitor and is on top of the basics.
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6. Tadhg Beirne, 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Taulupe Faletau.
You’d have to fancy this back-row to hold their own against anyone.
It’s a www job — wow three times over.
Beirne is the turnover specialist capable of achieving momentum swings with his ability over the ball; Watson rarely misses a tackle and can plough through opposition defenders thanks to his immense strength; Faletau is the all-rounder, good at pretty much every aspect of a No. 8’s role and also possessing a big-game temperament.
Together this Irish, Scottish and Welsh blend has a nice balance.
South Africa might be quietly pleased they are not facing the trio.
The starting XV Gatland didn’t pick : L. Williams, L. Rees-Zammit, C. Harris, B. Aki, J. Adams; O. Farrell, C. Murray; M. Vunipola, J. George, K. Sinckler, A. Beard, J. Hill, T. Beirne, H. Watson, T. Faletau.
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