Farrell out, Warburton benched for Lions v New Zealand Maori
Flyhalf Owen Farrell was ruled out with a leg injury and tour captain Sam Warburton picked on the bench in a surprising selection by the British and Irish Lions for their match against the New Zealand Maori at Rotorua on Saturday.
Coach Warren Gatland had indicated he would unveil a test-strength starting lineup to face the Maori, a week out from the series-opening test against New Zealand. But if the initial team Gatland announced on Thursday is his test lineup, it contained some surprises.
Warburton has been struggling with an ankle injury on tour and played 68 minutes, scoring a try in the Lions' 23-22 loss to the Highlanders on Tuesday. He still seems short of match fitness and Sean O'Brien has been selected ahead of Warburton on the openside flank.
Farrell was initially selected among the reserves, with Jonathan Sexton chosen to work with Irish teammate Conor Murray in the halves, but was later ruled out with what the Lions described as a grade one quadriceps injury. He should be available for the first test next week. Wales playmaker Dan Biggar was added to the bench.
Gatland said Warburton is really in a contest for a starting place in the test side.
''This tour isn't about Sam Warburton, it's about putting the squad first,'' Gatland said. ''If he's not involved in the first test because of the performances on Saturday night he will fully understand that.''
Ireland's Peter O'Mahony will captain the team from the blindside flank; the fourth captain of the Lions in five matches after Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens.
''Peter is a proven captain with Munster who never takes a backward step,'' Gatland said.
Apart from the uncertainty over No. 10, the backline otherwise appears to be a preview of the Lions' test lineup with Leigh Halfpenny at fullback, Anthony Watson and George North on the wings and Jonathan Davies and New Zealand-born England center Ben Te'o in midfield.
In the forwards, hooker Jamie George will pack between props Tadhg Furlong and Mako Vunipola while George Kruis and Maro Itoje combine in the second row. Wales No. 8 Taulupe Faletau joins a strong back row with O'Mahony and O'Brien.
Gatland has changed the entire starting 15 that lined up against the Highlanders, continuing the policy of sweeping rotation that he has used throughout the tour.
''We were obviously disappointed with the loss against the Highlanders and realize that we need to improve in several areas including our discipline,'' Gatland said. ''But we feel that overall we are building well towards the test matches.
''Every game is a big challenge which is what we wanted, and this is an experienced Lions team with eight of the starting 15 involved in the last test in Australia in 2013.''
The Lions beat Australia 2-1 in their last series.
Maori coach Colin Cooper has included eight All Blacks in his starting 15. The Maori beat the Lions on their last tour to New Zealand in 2005.
All Blacks center Charlie Ngatai and winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, who are returning from long injury layoffs, were in a backline which also includes winger Rieko Ioane, flyhalf Damian McKenzie and scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
McKenzie usually plays at fullback for the Chiefs but is experienced at flyhalf.
''We've named a strong group who all have good clarity on how we want to play,'' Cooper said. ''We feel Damian will suit the game plan that we want to play, from the No. 10 position.''
Liam Messam and Elliot Dixon are in a strong back row while prop Kane Hames will pack beside Ash Dixon, who will captain the team from hooker.
British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te'o, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Taulupe Faletau, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony (captain), George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Iain Henderson, Sam Warburton, Greig Laidlaw, Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly.
New Zealand Maori: James Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Matt Proctor, Charlie Ngatai, Rieko Ioane, Damian McKenzie, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Liam Messam, Elliot Dixon, Akira Ioane, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler, Ben May, Ash Dixon, Kane Hames. Reserves: Hika Elliot, Chris Eves, Marcel Renata, Leighton Price, Kara Pryor, Bryn Hall, Ihaia West, Rob Thompson.