With four matches played and two wins for and against, the Lions tour to New Zealand has begun with a bumpy start and several performances that have not been up to scratch against highly-motivated Kiwi teams on their home soil. Starting with the win against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei, the Lions have recorded losses against the Highlanders and the Blues, but secured a win against the previously unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch. In these first four games, Gatland will have gained an appreciation of the players he wants for his test team and has given each player the opportunity to demonstrate their talents. Here is a list of those who have and have failed to likely impress the coach so far.
In the reckoning:
A concern before the tour due to injury concerns and has only played one game on tour so far, but Conor Murray outshone his teammates against the Crusaders with a consummate performance that nullified much of the Crusaders’ attacking threat and allowed the Lions to gain a firm grip on a game that could easily have slipped away. His kicking from open-play is a huge asset considering the type of wingers Gatland has selected for the tour and his mental resilience will allow him to go toe-to-toe with Aaron Smith. Gatland will need to be mindful of managing his workload though and we may only see him once more before the first test in Auckland.
A player who complements Murray’s kicking game and would have been a useful addition against a Highlanders team who kicked more than expected. Although he got a costly yellow card against the Blues in the second game, he was a star performer against the Crusaders where his aerial ability came into its own. Depending on how Gatland wants to play, he would be advised to get Williams into the game more because of his propensity for Tommy Bowe-esque running lines and his commitment in challenging for the ball and in the tackle. He may not be the quickest, but then Anthony Watson is in the squad for that reason.
Forwards are often unheralded in Rugby Union and fail to receive the plaudits as flashier colleagues behind the scrum often do. Not the elder Vunipola brother. Appearing against the Barbarians and the Crusaders, Vunipola has been hugely influential in giving the Lions a strong platform from which to impose themselves upon their Kiwi hosts. As referenced below, the Lions are currently struggling to get numbers to the breakdown before their opponents, resulting in needless penalties caused by a lack of communication and understanding. Vunipola is useful in this regard, in that unlike other front row colleagues, he not only makes ground more often than not, but he is also adept at retaining the ball and stealing it when defending.
Need to step up their game:
Haskell has appeared against the Blues and the Highlanders so far and has struggled to assert himself in New Zealand. In his most recent match in Dunedin, Haskell made a couple of handling errors and was unable to win the breakdown battle against Luke Whitelock and Gareth Evans. At times he also looked lost with ball in hand and does not appear to have the speed to effectively counter opposition attackers. Gatland will likely give him one more game to prove himself before the tests, but Haskell will need to re-evaluate his game and put in a big performance if he is to be considered.
Having appeared against the Barbarians and the Highlanders, Joseph has scored one of the Lions’ few tries on tour and has demonstrated a couple of neat touches and command under the high ball, but has not been able to tear enemy defences apart as he did during the Six Nations and often finds himself targeted by opposition attackers who are aware of his defensive frailties. Admittedly, in the Highlanders game, he did manage to catch and tackle Malakai Fekitoa having been stepped, but he was also bumped off in the tackle by Richard Buckman with relative ease in another phase and seems unable to escape the clutches of enemy defenders when an opportunity presents itself.
Daly has appeared against the Blues and the Highlanders so far on tour and has been unfortunate in being denied the clinical service that presented him with opportunities during the Six Nations. Like many of his Lions’ colleagues, he has been unable to fully adapt to the playing patterns that Gatland favours and has therefore been at a loose end in attacking phase play. Additionally, and not that this is fatal to his chances of selection, Daly missed the final penalty that would have won the Lions the game against the Highlanders. Owen Farrell had missed an earlier kickable penalty that would likely have had the same result and Daly’s was from a far greater distance, but it won’t count in his favour even though the Lions have lost another long-range kicking specialist in Stuart Hogg to injury.
Of course there is time for players to turn their fortunes around and for the test team to change its dynamic considerably based on injuries and form, but it does appear that Gatland already has an understanding of his favoured team with those playing against the Barbarians and the Crusaders more likely to walk into the test team. The differing interpretations of northern and southern hemisphere referees may also play a part in Gatland’s selections with two French referees potentially giving the Lions an advantage in the test series.