FINN Russell and Allan Dell have gone straight into the Lions squad for tomorrow’s match against the Chiefs, just a day after playing in Scotland’s win over Australia. The two are joined on the bench by Tommy Seymour, while Greig Laidlaw is the only Scot to start.
There are also places among the substitutes for the four Welshmen who were also called up by Warren Gatland over the weekend – a move that provoked heavy criticism of the head coach for selecting players who were close to New Zealand rather than those who most deserved to be drafted in. The two Scots only had to take a flight from Sydney, while Wales were already in New Zealand, having beaten Tonga in Auckland on Friday night.
But Laidlaw insisted that the six new boys had a legitimate role to play, and said the call-ups should not have come as a surprise. “They are all Test-match players,” the scrum-half said. “Warren’s made it no secret this was his plan all along.
“It’s something he did on the Australia tour in 2013. He thought it would be successful then, and it did indeed work, and now he’s gone down the same track.
“So ultimately it’s to look after the Test squad, which is so important now at this stage of the series. It’s about looking after everyone to make sure we get the best performance in the Test matches when they come around.”
Russell, the key man in Scotland’s 24-19 win over the Wallabies on Saturday, was the only one of the six believed to have come anywhere close to being selected for the Lions’ original tour party. None of the new players is expected to be in contention for a place in the team for Saturday’s first Test against the All Blacks, but Laidlaw said that his half-back partner still had a significant contribution to make.
“Finn is a quality operator. He’s gifted, he’s a good offloader, he reads the game, he’s excitable. Given an opportunity, he’ll come in, but there’s quality players within the squad already. So to have a few more to come in and boost the squad as well is great.”
The Chiefs are coached by Dave Rennie, who will take up the reins at Glasgow Warriors once the Super Rugby season ends, while Gatland was in charge of Waikato from 2005 to 2007. That background may ensure a certain amount of friendliness between the backroom staffs tomorrow, but the match itself will be played in the fiercest of spirits as the Lions, who beat the New Zealand Maori 32-10 on Saturday, look for another morale-boosting win to take into the three-Test series.
The bulk of the Lions squad tomorrow know that they realistically have little chance of being involved at the weekend, while the omission from the 23 of England centre Jonathan Joseph suggests that he will be part of the line-up to take on the All Blacks.
Gatland insisted he was “always confident” that Owen Farrell would be available for the Test despite the England playmaker’s thigh strain, but the head coach is offering no guarantees to his captain, Sam Warburton.
The Wales flanker has been omitted from the squad for tomorrow’s match in Hamilton, raising hopes that he might squeeze into the Test squad after ankle trouble. But Gatland reiterated his huge admiration for the back-row trio of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau that helped the Lions “squeeze the life” out of the Maori in Saturday’s triumph.
“There’s no doubt that there’s some pressure on certain players and certain combinations have gone well,” Gatland said when quizzed about Warburton. “Against the Maori we dominated territory and possession. We squeezed the life out them, an unbelievably talented backline that just went nowhere. So there will be some tough debates and discussions to have on the final make-up of what the back row is going to be for Saturday.”
Ireland hooker Rory Best will captain the Lions against the Chiefs, while Liam Williams of Wales is at full-back in the continued absence of Leigh Halfpenny, who must complete his head-injury protocols if he is to reclaim the No 15 jersey for the Tests. The Chiefs are captained by 2011 Rugby World Cup winner Stephen Donald.
British and Irish Lions (v the Chiefs tomorrow, 8.35am BST): L Williams (Wales); J Nowell (England), J Payne, R Henshaw (both Ireland), E Daly (England); D Biggar (Wales), G Laidlaw (Scotland); J Marler (England), R Best (Ireland), D Cole (England), I Henderson (Ireland), C Lawes, J Haskell (both England), J Tipuric (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland). Substitutes: K Dacey (Wales), A Dell (Scotland), T Francis, C Hill, AW Jones, G Davies (all Wales), F Russell, T Seymour (both Scotland).
Chiefs: S Stevenson; T Pulu, T Nanai-Williams, J Faauli, S Alaimalo; S Donald, F Christie; S Fisi’ihoi, L Polwart, N Laulala, D Bird, M Allardice, M Brown, L Boshier, T Sanders. Substitutes: H Elliot, A Ross, A Moli, L Messam, M Karpik, J Taumateine, L Laulala, C Tiatia.