The British and Irish Lions Test 23 became a whole lot clearer on Tuesday following their second defeat of the summer tour, this time to Super Rugby side Highlanders.
Lions boss Warren Gatland rang the changes once more following their encouraging victory over the Crusaders at the weekend and in making those changes, it was clear that it was a weaker Lions side that lined out in the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The nature of the fixtures that precede the three Test matches with the All Blacks is to allow the squad to gel and become a cohesive until. It is also an opportunity for Gatland and his coaches to test out player combinations and plays in a bid to find the right personnel that will challenge the world champions in their own backyard.
While winning is always nice, it is not essential. What is a must, however, is progress. So far, despite the up-and-down set of result, positive steps are being taken by the tourists.
Now, after four games in the space of two weeks, the path forward for Gatland is likely becoming clearer. Knowing who his 23 will be for the first Test will surely be influenced by the defeat to the Highlanders.
When he does announce his Test side, it will inevitably fracture the 41-man squad in two, with those left off the team sheet consigned to being the midweek side that will face the Chiefs and the Hurricanes either side of the first Test on June 24.
Colloquially known as the ‘dirt trackers’, the midweek team will be playing for pride, looking to atone for the two defeats suffered so far. They will also be out to impress upon Gatland their credentials for promotion to the Test side, should an injury or dip in performance befall one of the chosen 23.
As hard as it still is to definitively identify who will end up on which side of the fence, there is enough evidence to suggest more than a handful of stars destined for the dirt track.
These could well include:
The veteran England tighthead has been in a battle for Test selection with the young pretenders Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler. With both younger men featuring strongly so far, with assured scrummaging and eye-catching breaks, they have raised their hands firmly in the air.
Cole was given 30 minutes or so against the Highlanders to remind Gatland of his own worth but found it very difficult to impress with the Lions scrum being so definitively manhandled in the second half of their 23-22 defeat.
Time is running out for the 30-year-old.
Having been somewhat underwhelming in his first Lions appearance in the dour victory over the Provincial Barbarians, the Scotland captain was given another opportunity to shine against the Highlanders when he replaced Rhys Webb in the second half of Tuesday’s game.
Coinciding with the turning tides of fortune for the tourists, Laidlaw failed to stand out from the crowd as a potential game changer. With Conor Murray and Webb turning in impressive displays already, the Scot could well have to satisfy himself with two more starts against the remaining Super Rugby sides.
The young Irishman could find himself losing out on Test rugby due to the versatility of Owen Farrell. Following a pair of mixed performances to date, Henshaw is almost surely behind Ben Te’o in the race for selection.
Given how well Farrell and Johnny Sexton worked in tandem with scrum-half Conor Murray against the Crusaders, this could be a model that Gatland chooses to employ against the All Blacks.
Should this be the case, we could see Farrell starting at inside-centre, with Te’o ready to impress from the bench.
The Ulsterman turned in a strong performance against the Highlanders on Tuesday and firmly made his claim for Test rugby. With the head injury suffered by Courtney Lawes on Tuesday, and the expected layoff that will come with his recovery, Henderson’s chances have been significantly boosted.
However, with Maro Itoje and George Kruis making all the right moves to warrant a Test jersey, plus the Test rugby experience of Alun Wyn Jones, it is possible that Henderson will be the one to miss out.
Always set for an uphill battle to dislodge Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton from the Test squad, Biggar has featured twice so far this tour but tasted defeat on both occasions. Despite Sexton having a below par showing against the Provincial Barbarians, he bounced back strongly against the Crusaders.
For Biggar to work his way into contention, he needed an imperious performance against the Highlanders and while he showed flashes of brilliance, they were tempered by errors and spells of mediocrity.
Unless Gatland chooses Welsh loyalty over merit, Biggar is destined for the dirt track.
The New Zealand-born Irish back had the perfect opportunity t0 nail down his Test place against the Highlanders. Following the tour-ending injury to Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny will stroll into the No. 15 shirt for the first Test and Payne had every chance of earning a spot on the bench against the All Blacks.
Against the Highlanders on Tuesday, however, Payne suffered a number of gaffes, most notably the spilt ball on the Highlanders restart, which will do him no favours in the eyes of Gatland.
England’s Elliot Daly was given a run late on and did just enough in his short time on the field to cause Gatland to turn his attention to the versatile back as an alternative backup for Halfpenny.
There are several other notable battles raging for the replacements bench come Test time, with wingers Tommy Seymour and Jack Nowell still trying to impress.
At hooker, picking two from the trio of Rory Best, Ken Owens and Jamie George is fraught with difficulty. No pair has truly stood out.
Across the back-row, Sam Warburton, CJ Stander, James Haskell, Peter O’Mahony, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric are engaged in a battle to join Taulupe Faletau on June 24.
With six men fighting it out for what will likely only be three spots, right now you would do well to name the Test back-row with any real confidence.
Next up for the Lions is the unofficial ‘fourth Test’ against the Maori All Blacks. It is presumed that the Lions 23 lining out on Saturday will be close to the Test side Gatland will pick for the June 24 Test.
It is, therefore, a game the Lions can ill-afford to lose.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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