Mark Reason: Warren Gatland misses an opportunity in naming team for first Lions tour match
OPINION: Either Owen Farrell or Jonny Sexton needs to go up to coach Warren Gatland and plead for him to start his test backline together. The opening selection of the tour is a shambles. The only way it can make any sense is if Gatland intends to play Conor Murray, Owen Farrell and Robbie Henshaw together in the test matches and even then it is an opportunity missed.
But we have been here before. Back in 2013 Manu Tuilagi started at 12 for the Lions in the first match in Hong Kong. For Tuilagi read Ben Te'o this time around. Bash. I hope it is not true, but the early signs are that Gatland will try to take on All Blacks' skill and speed with British biff and blunder up the middle.
In 2013 the Lions backline did not play together until the first test and frankly it looked like it. They got away with such a strange selection policy because Australia were awful. The Lions should have smashed them 3-0. But they played like they had only just met, which indeed they had.
A couple of days ago I was talking at length to Mike Gibson, the brilliant Ireland midfield back who played outside Barry John in 1971, the only time the Lions have won in New Zealand. Gibson told me, "It takes five games to get into a tour, to read your colleagues, the lines they run, how they react in situations. It's not easy to achieve that potential."
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Gatland does not have five games so it is paramount that he finds his combinations as quickly as possible. Gibson would like to see Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell together at 10 and 12, but if that were going to happen, then Gatland has missed the perfect opposition to pair them in the first game.
Gatland said, "We have named a side that showcases a strong combination of experience and youth and we are really looking forward to Saturday. I'm looking forward to seeing what Greig can do alongside Johnny Sexton who both are experienced half-backs.
"We've picked the team for Saturday but it is still the plan to try and give the whole squad a start in the next two matches. It is important the players get that opportunity, because if they go well and the team goes well, they put themselves in the shop window for a test start."
Shop windows and show cases, it all sounds a bit like a game show, which in a way I suppose it is. Professional rugby is first and foremost a show. But Gatland only has two more Saturdays after this one before the first test. He needs to start finding his combinations or the All Blacks will take his team apart.
He did not feel able to start the likes of Conor Murray because they had played in the Pro 12 final at the weekend and missed the Lions training camp. But surely this was the perfect opportunity at least to put his midfield together. Gatland is not going to fool anyone in New Zealand by keeping them hidden until the test match. Well, he might fool his own players who won't have a clue what each other are up to.
Owen Farrell said, "It's not just the time you put in on the pitch, there's plenty of time off it to ensure you're in a good place to be prepared for what's coming up, Some lads are going to have some catching up to do, but we'll be on the same page. There is not loads and loads to learn."
There hasn't always been loads to learn about Gatland's game plans and that is not a criticism. Their simplicity has very often been a virtue. But Farrell is wrong if he thinks there is not a lot to learn about his colleagues. He should go and talk to Gibson. The Irishman was one of the shrewdest players to have played the game and if he reckons five matches is a minimum, then it will take others ten.
It may be that Gatland is planning to bring some of his starting backline together for a midweek match and then back them up on a Saturday. But this is not Australia, where the Lions played some woeful midweek opposition four years ago. Every game will be brutal and most of the Lions squad have already played far too much rugby this season. They need to cram and they need to rest, which is the Devil's contradiction that Gatland somehow has to work out.
Gatland does have plenty of pace through the wider channels in the first game and you suspect it might make or break the test chances of Jonathan Joseph and the back three. But does Te'o really have the hands to put Joseph into gaps as Farrell is able to do.
As a curious aside the two men who played in the opening match in both 2013 and 2017 are Taulupe Faletau and Stuart Hogg. Neither started in the first test against Australia four years ago. They will be hoping for a change in fortune.
Lions team to play Provincial Barbarians: Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te'o, Tommy Seymour, Jonathan Sexton, Greig Laidlaw, Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Ross Moriarty, Iain Henderson, Alun Wyn Jones, Kyle Sinckler, Rory Best, Joe Marler. Reserves: Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Tadhg Furlong, George Kruis, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Owen Farrell, Jared Payne