Warren Gatland has admitted the British and Irish Lions coaches will face one of their toughest ever selection meetings to finalise the men to face New Zealand.
Gatland insisted tour captain Sam Warburton’s continuing battle to squeeze into the starting line-up for Saturday’s first Test in Auckland underscores the Lions’ increasing potency.
Every tour captain has started the first Lions Test dating back to 1930, when England’s Doug Prentice missed out, but Warburton is still fighting for full match sharpness after ankle trouble.
The Lions would be fully comfortable with Peter O’Mahony as captain for the first Test if Warburton is not deemed ready to start – and Gatland acknowledged today’s final selection meeting will require some debate.
“I think our performances have been good; not everyone agrees with that opinion,” said Gatland after the Lions defeated the Chiefs 34-6 in Hamilton. “We are pretty happy with where we are at the moment with the players in the group. The selection meeting will be tough and that’s the way we want it.
“Guys put up their hands tonight and I’ve no doubt there will be some healthy debate.”
Asked if Warburton’s situation of battling for a start underlines a positive in the Lions’ strength in depth, Gatland replied: “Absolutely, it’s what you want. We spoke about the quality of the squad before we left and some players haven’t disappointed us.”
O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau have forged a formidable and so far first-choice back-row as the Lions’ strongest XV have ground both the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks into submission.
The midweek team dismissed a disappointing Chiefs side, clearing the decks for the Lions to move on and focus fully on their bid to topple back-to-back world champions the All Blacks.
Jack Nowell bagged a try brace but appears just too far away to sneak into the Test match 23, though Elliot Daly’s improving showing should earn him a seat on the bench.
Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones are in the box seats at lock, and Warburton probably out in front with O’Mahony, O’Brien and Faletau in the back-row.
Gatland insisted that his entire backroom staff will thrash out the final first Test selection as a group - and that he will not make any unilateral decisions.
“The selection meeting will be with all the coaches,” said Gatland. “The way it always works, I can tell you in the past, it’s always a consensus of that group.
“It’s never one person’s call, it’s coaches discussing the options then collectively agreeing on selections. That’s exactly what will happen.”