Monday 19 July 2021 4:44 pm

British and Irish Lions Tour: Warren Gatland's three big selection headaches ahead of first Test

After months of concerns over whether the series would go ahead, the British and Irish Lions will finally face South Africa in the first Test in Cape Town on Saturday. 

Lions coach Warren Gatland has given all of his tourists a chance to impress and must now pick 23 men to face the world champions.

Gatland has kept his tactical cards close to his chest so far, and debate remains over which combinations we’ll see against the Springboks, none more so than the back-row, midfield and back three. 

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Back row: breakdown vs lineout

The composition of the back row will be pivotal if Gatland’s men are to leave South Africa victors later this summer.

Gatland is not short of world-class operators but how exactly does he strike the balance between the breakdown and lineout?

Tom Curry and Taulupe Faletau look to be the favourites to start at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday, leaving the decisions to be made over the vacant flank position. 

There are growing calls for Tadhg Beirne to be handed the No6 jersey to combat the South Africans’ aerial threat at lineout time. The 6ft6ins Irishmen has impressed so far this summer.

Gatland has displayed a lot of trust in Courtney Lawes, selecting him to tour after his Six Nations absence this year.

Arguably, Lawes’ 2017 success in a Lions shirt could edge him in at No6 ahead of Beirne. However, Gatland and his coaching staff have explained the important role the finishing XV will play.

For that reason, you’d expect Lawes to be handed a replacement jersey to cause havoc when the Boks’ 18-month lay-off starts to take its toll later in games. 

The welcome return of tour captain Alun Wyn-Jones perhaps dampens the argument to have an extra lineout operator in the back row.

Gatland has 2021 Six Nations player of the tournament Hamish Watson at his disposal to compete with the Springboks at the breakdown.

Watson’s prowess extends beyond that and he will undoubtedly take on more than his fair share of ball-carrying responsibility.

The prospect of Watson and Curry combined must be a frightening prospect for Rassie Erasmus to contend with. 

Midfield: Farrell vs force

Gatland’s midfield selection will set the tone for how the Lions are going to attack during the first series and beyond.

The inclusion of Gregor Townsend as attack coach has led many to anticipate the Lions playing an expansive brand of rugby.

Will the Lions replicate their 2017 Sexton-Farrell axis in the form of Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell? Or opt for a more direct running partnership to combat the physicality of the Springboks?

To balance an attacking 10-12 axis of Biggar and Farrell, one would expect Chris Harris or Robbie Henshaw to start outside in the 13 jersey.

Prior to the tour, the in-form Henshaw was a nailed-on starter for many, however Harris has been faultless in taking his opportunities well.

Both of these men in the 13 channel would take on the backline’s carrying responsibility, while offering a great deal of defensive security.  

Owen Farrell could play at 12 with Dan Biggar at 10 in the Lions' first Test in South Africa
Owen Farrell could play at 12 with Dan Biggar at 10 in the Lions’ first Test in South Africa (Getty Images)

Gatland’s decision to select Elliot Daly was a surprise but, like Lawes, Daly’s past success in 2017 has earned him a show of faith again.

Daly has proven 13 to be his most effective position and offers the ability to be a second ball-player – not to mention a monster of a left boot which, as in 2017, may help the Lions out of trouble.

Bundee Aki, labelled a replacement for the injured Manu Tuilagi, will have a point to prove if selected by Gatland. Aki will bring brute force to the party and help mitigate the threat of 105kg Damien de Allende. 

Whether Gatland opts for a playmaking-rich or direct and physical midfield, it looks sure to be an exciting battle between the two back-lines.

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Back three: flair vs pace

After being forced to isolate for 10days earlier this tour, Stuart Hogg successfully captained the Lions against the Stormers last weekend and looks the favourite to start at 15 in the first Test.

Hogg’s stability under the high ball and cultured kicking game should mitigate the kick threat of the Springboks’ half-back pair. And after his 2017 tour was cut agonisingly short, Hogg will be keen to make his mark in the Lions 15 jersey. 

Josh Adams’ try-scoring success places Gatland in a situation where it’s difficult not to pick the Welshman.

Anthony Watson also has a very strong case to start given his proven track record for the Lions and England.

With Liam Williams and Watson capable of playing full-back, could this free an opportunity for Gatland to opt for Duhan van der Merwe or Louis Rees-Zammit?