Gatland forced to defend Lions call ups

Maori All Blacks warren gatland british irish lions
17 June 2017; British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland ahead of the match between the Maori All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Rotorua International Stadium in Rotorua, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Warren Gatland has been forced to defend his decision to call up six players to his British and Lions squad.

Kristian Dacey, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill and Gareth Davies were added to the Lions squad after featuring in Wales’ 24-6 victory over Tonga in Auckland on Friday.

Scotland prop Allan Dell and fly-half Finn Russell were then called up following Scotland’s 24-19 defeat of Australia in Sydney on Saturday.

They supplement a Lions squad depleted by the loss of Stuart Hogg (facial injury) and Ross Moriarty (back injury), with Owen Farrell a doubt for Saturday’s first Test after suffering a quadriceps injury in training.

The decision, though, has sparked criticism with Gatland accused of cheapening the concept of playing for the Lions by basing his decision on geography, rather than merit.

But Gatland defended the call ups by saying: “Bringing in these players from an identical time zone, who can hit the ground running and step straight in rather than having to adjust following long-haul travel, will help us manage players before the first Test, give us quality training numbers to prepare properly, as well as offering us options for selection for the Chiefs match.”

Maori All Blacks warren gatland british irish lions
17 June 2017; Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Akira Ioane of the Maori All Blacks during the match between the Maori All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Rotorua International Stadium in Rotorua, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

England head coach Eddie Jones has lead the attack with players from England and Ireland overlooked in preference of those from sides touring in more geographically favourable countries.

England are currently touring Argentina while Ireland are in Japan.

Jones said: “The Lions is a prestigious team – when you become a Lion, you’re remembered for life.

“My only comment would be, I would like to see it picked on merit rather than geographical proximity.”

The debate overshadowed the Lions picking up their third win of the series, just a week before they face the All Blacks in the first Test at Eden Park, Auckland, on 24 June.

The Lions ran out comfortable and worthy winners, 32-10, over Maori All Blacks with Wales full back Leigh Halfpenny contributing 20 points to the victory in Rotorua.

The tourists led 15-10 at the break, with Liam Messam crossing for the hosts’ try after a mix up between Halfpenny and George North, as they failed to deal with a kick ahead.

Forward power

The Lions’ forward power came to the fore in the second half, and they dominated possession and territory to earn a penalty try, before England second row Maro Itoje touched down four minutes later.

The confidence boosting win saw the Lions bounce back from their 23-22 defeat by the Highlanders.

“It was pretty good. If you look at territory and possession we dominated things. A couple of stupid penalties in the first half but we managed the game well and squeezed the life out of them,” said Gatland.

“We’ve been guilty of putting ourselves under pressure but we got some going forward – even the try they scored was a lucky, speculative kick through.

“We’re benefiting from the experience of playing the quality of sides we are.”

The Lions face the Chiefs on Tuesday (20 June) but no Test starters are likely to feature in that outing, so talk has already turned to Gatland’s starting XV to take on New Zealand.

Maori All Blacks warren gatland british irish lions
17 June 2017; Peter O’Mahony of the British & Irish Lions during the match between the Maori All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Rotorua International Stadium in Rotorua, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Peter O’Mahony, who captained the side against the Maori All Blacks, did his chances no harm with an excellent performance in the back row alongside Toby Faletau and Sean O’Brien, meaning tour captain Sam Warburton can no longer be regarded as an automatic starter in Auckland.

With Farrell a doubt, Jonathan Sexton seems nailed on for the number ten jersey, while his Ireland half back partner, Conor Murray, will almost certainly start at number nine.

Maori All Blacks: J Lowe; N Milner-Skudder, M Proctor, C Ngatai, R Ioane; D McKenzie, T Kerr-Barlow; K Hames, A Dixon (capt), B May, J Wheeler, T Franklin, A Ioane, E Dixon, L Messam.

Replacements: H Elliot, C Eves, M Renata, L Price, K Pryor, B Hall, I West, R Thompson.

Lions: L Halfpenny (Wales); A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), B Te’o (England), G North (Wales); Sexton, C Murray (both Ireland); M Vunipola, J George (both England), T Furlong (Ireland), M Itoje, G Kruis (both England), P O’Mahony (capt), S O’Brien (both Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).

Replacements: K Owens (Wales), J McGrath (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), I Henderson (Ireland), S Warburton (Wales), G Laidlaw (Scotland), D Biggar (Wales), E Daly (England).


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