BRITISH and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland says there are “no preconceived ideas” about the make-up of his first Test team that will tackle Australia next month.
That selection process effectively begins at Hong Kong Stadium tomorrow when 2009 Lions captain Paul O’Connell leads the tourists into action. Starting with the Barbarians, there are six games before Gatland’s Test XV runs out against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
“What we’ve always said is that everyone will get a start in the first three games, and we will look at certain combinations, mixing and matching a little bit,” head coach Gatland said. “The great thing at the moment is there is a huge amount of competition within the squad. I think a lot of players feel that if they play well and put their hand up they’ve got a chance of being selected. “The guys who go out on Saturday get their first opportunity to set a mark and put some pressure on the other players in the squad.
“In terms of the Test side, probably not until after the first four games will we actually even start thinking about that. I think it is important that these players feel like they’ve got a chance to go out and impress. As coaches and management, we are not going around with any preconceived ideas about what we think the Test side should look like.”
O’Connell will seal his comeback from serious injury by captaining the Lions this weekend. Only a few months ago, the 33-year-old Ireland lock did not expect to be part of what is now his third Lions mission. But with tour skipper Sam Warburton resting a knee injury, O’Connell takes over as leader against the Barbarians. “I suppose around Christmas, and even two or three months after Christmas, I certainly thought I wouldn’t be here, so to be here and now captaining the side is fantastic,” said O’Connell, who was laid low by groin and back problems. “I am delighted. It’s a very exciting occasion. We’ve had a few great weeks, and it has gone up another level since the Leicester boys and the Leinster boys came in (last weekend). I am disappointed, obviously, for Sam. He has run a great ship the last few weeks.” Solitary Irishman O’Connell will take charge of a team containing nine Welshmen – including the entire back row of Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau – three Scots and two English.
Gatland yesterday described Wales flanker Warburton’s absence from the Baa-baas encounter as “precautionary”.
“Sam has just got a little knock,” Gatland said. “He has had a little bit of a sore knee for the last ten days, and the medics have just given him an injection and said just to stay off it for about five days. He was desperate to play, but we felt just so early in the tour it was not worth the risk. It is just precautionary, and there are two or three players in the same boat.
“Sean O’Brien has bruising on the bone, Rob Kearney’s hamstring is just a little bit tight and Gethin Jenkins’ calf is a little bit tight as well.
“They are all hopeful and confident of being fit for either the (Western) Force game next Wednesday or the game (against Queensland Reds) in Brisbane.
“We want to go and show the Australian public that we are capable of moving the ball and scoring lots of points. But the whole focus is about coming back with a Test series win, and if we need to be pragmatic, then we will do that as well. We feel we have got a squad and the ability to play any type of game, whatever conditions are thrown at us, and being able to change from one style to another.”
O’Connell, meanwhile, is determined for the tour to begin in successful fashion. “I remember the first game we had in South Africa in 2009. It was a very tough game, and we didn’t play fabulously well, but we finished well and got the win,” he said. “It got us moving in the right direction, and if we can do that again this weekend it will be great. The guys have just completely dived into the whole thing – we are very tight already – and there is a big buzz, a big excitement about making this tour very special.”