Lions tour: Lions squad for Chiefs shows test team starting to take shape
Less than one week out from facing the All Blacks, Lions coach Warren Gatland is adamant areas of his test team remain contestable.
Gatland says they are in the loose forwards, where he must choose between captain Sam Warburton and the in-form Sean O'Brien; back three, midfield and second-row.
The reality is Gatland continues to play games. Behind closed doors he has settled on the majority of his test squad, but for maybe one or two positions.
The Lions squad captained by Irish hooker Rory Best for the Chiefs on Tuesday night, which features all six replacement players on the bench, revealed English centre Jonathan Joseph has probably played his way into the 23 for the first test after being left out of the mid-week team.
Joseph was one of the Lions' best against the Highlanders in Dunedin last Tuesday.
Gatland also revealed Owen Farrell, having pulled out of his bench duties against New Zealand Maori in Rotorua on Saturday due to a minor quad injury, would take on the All Blacks at Eden Park.
"I was always confident about Owen being fit for the weekend," Gatland said. "I was never unconfident about that."
Veteran Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones, rested from the Maori match but named on the bench for the Chiefs, is expected to back up in Auckland on Saturday in some capacity. English pairing George Kruis and Maro Itoje are the other locks in contention to start.
Gatland has been keen to point out on the 2013 tour of Australia he made nine chances to the test team between the first and third tests.
"We won't sit down and pick the [test] team until Wednesday and I think that's only fair on the players that are taking the field on Tuesday night," Gatland said. "If it's not for this week then a great performance might come into consideration for tests two and three."
Fullback Leigh Halfpenny, who kicked six penalties in the convincing 32-10 win over the Maori, is undergoing concussion tests after taking a blow in the tackle that saw Tawera Kerr-Barlow yellow carded.
Otherwise, the Lions are largely injury free.
Liam Williams, named at fullback against the Chiefs, along with wing Elliot Daly are believed to be in contention for the test utility role.
"A number of those players in the back three are pretty versatile. It's an opportunity for Liam to go and impress there. Anthony Watson did a good job coming on there against the Crusaders and has looked dangerous. We're giving players a chance there from a counter attack perspective."
Warburton's ankle injury robbed him of valuable game-time against the Crusaders but Gatland seems to believe he is ready for test rugby, though whether he or O'Brien starts remains to be seen.
"There's no doubt there's some pressure on him because certain players and certain combinations have gone well. Those guys who played against the Crusaders did exceptionally well and last night against the Maori we squeezed the life out of them. A unbelievably talented backline went nowhere for the Maori team.
"The will be some discussions and debates to be had about the final make-up of the back-row for Saturday."
On a personal level, returning to Hamilton where he was born and raised, if only briefly, is special for Gatland.
"If you cut me open I'd probably bleed red, yellow and black. I'm very proud of my roots. It's a great place to have grown up. I went to school and played here. Waikato people are incredibly loyal. The amount of support I've had has just been amazing. It's nice to be back and catch up with some friends."
British and Irish Lions: Liam Williams, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly, Dan Biggar, Greig Laidlaw, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, James Haskell, Courtney Lawes, Iain Henderson, Dan Cole, Rory Best (captain), Joe Marler. Reserves: Kristian Dacey, Allan Dell, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones, Gareth Davies, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour.