Gatland has ringed the changes for the second game of the tour naming an entirely new starting 15. With the games coming thick and fast this will be the trend of the tour with Gatland utilising the depth of his 42 man squad. Only six of the squad from the Barbarians game have been recalled immediately, and they will undoubtedly be eager to get more minutes on the pitch after their participation in the underwhelming opener.
Gatland has made the surprising decision to hand the captaincy to Welsh hooker Ken Owens. Owens has had a great season with the Scarlets and has been rewarded for his form with the captaincy.
In my opinion he is some distance behind the other two hookers in competing for a test place, and I envisage that he will reliably be the captain of the ‘midweek massive’, captaining the games that Sam Warburton does not play in.
The Lions back line spluttered against the Barbarians but I expect a more composed display from this team featuring combinations from Wales and Ireland at 9/10, and 12/13 respectively. Dan Biggar isn’t a flyhalf who is going to light up a game, but with his wingman Rhys Webb feeding him I expect a more composed beginning to the match than on the weekend.
Looking at 9 and 10 combinations it is interesting to see Laidlaw and Sexton coupled together again on the bench. They did not click in the tour opener and will be hoping to have a better impact when they come on in the second half. This means that we will need to wait another game before we see the likely 9/10 test pairing of Conor Murray and Owen Farrell.
As Gatland has said that he will give all his players a start in the first three tests Murray and Farrell will be joined in the Crusaders game by Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadgh Furlong, George Kruis, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Davies, George North and Liam Williams.
The three players I’m most excited in seeing pull on the red jersey are Maro Itoje, Jack Nowell and CJ Stander. Itoje and Nowell were both instrumental for their respective team’s victories in the Champions Cup and Premiership and they’ll be eager to continue their form as they push for test places.
Stander had a great six nations for Ireland and was dominant in that famous victory against the All Blacks but has struggled to make his mark in recent games, notably the Pro 12 final. I expect him to rise to the occasion with a strong performance bowling over Super Rugby defenders.
British & Irish Lions: L Halfpenny; J Nowell, J Payne, R Henshaw, E Daly; D Biggar, R Webb; J McGrath, K Owens (capt), D Cole, C Lawes, M Itoje, J Haskell, J Tipuric, C J Stander.
Replacements: R Best, J Marler, K Sinckler, Henderson, O’Mahony, Laidlaw, J Sexton, L Williams.