Lions stick to selection plan for tour match vs Crusaders
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland hasn't allowed selection plans to be derailed by Wednesday's loss to the Auckland-based Blues, picking a lineup below test strength for Saturday's match with the Crusaders at Christchurch.
Gatland said he would give all 41 members of his touring squad a chance to play in the first three matches of the Lions' New Zealand tour and would not reveal his test lineup until the fifth tour match against the New Zealand Maori, a week before the first test.
He held to that course Thursday in selecting his squad to take on a Crusaders team which is unbeaten in 14 Super Rugby matches this season and will be the toughest opponent the Lions will have faced on the tour to date.
Some commentators have called on Gatland to abandon his rotational plans and to name his test side early, to prevent a loss to the Crusaders which might further undermine confidence of his players ahead of the three-test series against the world champion All Blacks.
Gatland has picked a strong but still experimental lineup, though, to meet a Crusaders team which contains nine All Blacks.
The four members of the Lions touring squad who did not play against the Blues or the Provincial Barbarians - flanker Sean O'Brien, scrumhalf Conor Murray, center Jonathan Davies and winger George North - will get their first outings.
England flyhalf Owen Farrell will be in the starting lineup for the first time on tour after coming off the bench to steady the Lions in a 13-7 win over the Barbarians. In that short cameo Farrell appeared to be more polished than Ireland's Jonathan Sexton and Wales' Dan Biggar who have started in the first two games.
His combination with Murray is the one Gatland could choose for the first test and for that reason the pair need to demonstrate an ability to control a game to a much greater degree than the Lions have shown so far on tour.
Alun Wyn Jones - on his third Lions tour - will lead the Lions from lock while New Zealand-born center Ben Te'o will get another chance to impress selectors.
''Our squad is working hard and we are seeing improvement in their performances both at training and in the games,'' Gatland said. ''Last night's result against the Blues was disappointing and we know we can't afford to give away so many penalties.''
Gatland's comment after the loss to the Blues that Super Rugby teams are of similar strength to the All Blacks has led to widespread criticism. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who named a 33-man test squad, expressed surprise at the comment but suggested Gatland may have been joking.
''I don't think there is any comparison between test rugby and Super Rugby but he's probably just trying to make a light comment,'' Hansen said. ''We have always said this and I still believe it, they are the best Lions side to come here.
''They are in the infancy of this tour and they will only get better. They will be a good side when the tests come around and that is all they care about anyway.''
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said his players were looking forward to the experience of playing the Lions.
''This is a huge and exciting challenge for us,'' he said. ''We are facing some of the best rugby players in the world but we have some of the world's best in this team, too, so it will be a fantastic clash.''
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall; Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Sam Whitelock (captain), Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Ala'alatoa, Quinten Strange, Jed Brown, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Tim Bateman.
Lions: Stuart Hogg, George North, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te'o, Liam Williams, Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Taulupe Faletau, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Tadgh Furlong, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, C.J. Stander, Rhys Webb, Johnny Sexton, Anthony Watson.