British & Irish Lions great Scott Gibbs has picked the match-day 23 he believes should head into battle against the Springboks in Cape Town on Saturday.
When I first got picked for the British & Irish Lions in 1993, Sir Ian McGeechan called me to his room the night before the second Test against the All Blacks. It was a Test we had to, and did, win.
He spoke of the honour, pleasure and responsibility of wearing a Lions jersey, but he emphasised the point that when you wear the jersey, you as a player will grow. When you pull the iconic red jersey over your head, there is a metamorphosis that needs to take place for you to rise to the occasion.
Competitive anxiety is not just to be proud to wear the jersey or the blazer, be a good teammate. You have to elevate your performance for those previous generations of players who have worn it before you and those you want to inspire for future generations.
For me, this is what embodies the magic of the British & Irish Lions, and this metamorphosis is what we have certainly seen in some players, but disappointingly in others. This is what needs to be kept in mind when making the final selections for the 23 to face the Springboks in the first Test of the series.
Modern rugby means picking a 23, it is no longer about just your first XV players, and while Warren Gatland may not be making the same selections, the players I’ve picked are based on the form and fight that they’ve shown so far over the tour, those who have stepped up to the change which the red jersey demands of you.
So far on tour everyone has had game time and there have been notable performances across the squad, but there have also been flat performances by senior players. In an elite environment, notwithstanding Covid-19, why is there such a discrepancy between some players?
A guy like Owen Farrell is a seasoned captain who is used playing a dominant role and taking responsibility. He hasn’t been poor, but not at the level you expect him to be.
You then have Marcus Smith who gets off the plane, has one training session and immediately looks at ease, his body language being positive, linking and kicking well.
Ali Price is another youngster who has been full of vigour and energy in a position that is a prerequisite, while Conor Murray, who has lacked in game time, looked unenthusiastic when he did play.
A guy like Faletau is either on a hot streak or not, and so far he hasn’t been.
There has been much consternation around Alun Wyn Jones, but he needs to be in there from the get-go. It is pointless trying to cotton-wool him for the second Test, because if his shoulder does give in in the first, you have the second and third Test to fix it. A week is not going to make a huge difference, whereas the lack of leadership evident so far on tour will make a difference. Jones’ strength as a leader and his nuance of the game are superb and if he is recovered, he must play.
Elliot Daly has impressed me in being industrious around the field, in various positions, and has made good on his promise as the utility back of the tour, but specialists in those positions have been great, too. With regard to the back three, Duhan Van Der Merwe has been superb but so, too, has Josh Adams. So, where does one find place for them among Anthony Watson and Liam Williams?
People may get bogged down on the first XV, its’ natural, but be it at 45 or 55 minutes, there will be wholesale changes. As much as Daly has been fantastic his utility is an outside back, and with a six-two split on the bench along with the knowledge that Biggar is carrying a niggle, you need a Farrell in your replacements.
Hamish Watson perhaps has an edge on Tom Curry from a footballing perspective, but Curry trumps him on speed around the field. This is a perfect example of the starting and bench selection not being based on who is better, but rather who is better suited to which role.
In Curry and Lawes, the Lions have two abrasive forwards who can come on in the second half and sustain the side against the Springboks’ physical challenge up to 80 minutes. The Lions will want to play at a high pace, but if they do get pulled into an arm wrestle, they then have players on the bench who can act as relievers and front a direct and physical style of play.
My 23 for the first Test reads as follows, and is based on those who have grown into their role in the Lions jersey and shown the hunger and form necessary to win a Test series. I want to hammer home the point again that rugby has evolved to a 23-man game, and we have to be able to look at the bigger picture past the 15 starting players.
15. Liam Williams
14. Anthony Watson
13. Chris Harris
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Josh Adams
10. Dan Biggar
9. Ali Price
8. Jack Conan
7. Hamish Watson
6. Tadhg Beirne
5. Alun Wyn Jones (c)
4. Maro Itoje
3. Tadhg Furlong
2. Luke Cowan Dickie
1. Mako Vunipola
16. Kyle Sinclair
17. Jamie George
18. Wyn Jones
19. Courtney Lawes
20. Tom Curry
21. Sam Simmons
22. Conor Murray
23. Owen Farrell