Lions starting XV to take on the All Blacks at Eden Park
16. Ken Owens 17. Jack McGrath 18. Kyle Sinkler 19. Maro Itoje 20. Sam Warburton 21. Rhys Webb 22. Jonathan Sexton 23. Leigh Halfpenny
Such surprise at the selection of both Williams and Elliot Daly in the test back 3, was due to both men seemingly being confined to the midweek squad. Having started against the Waikato Chiefs only 5 days prior on the Tuesday before the test, seeming unlikely either player would even make their way onto the test bench. Against the Chiefs Williams, Daly and jack Nowell had presented a performance so far unheard of from the outside backs on tour. Putting their hands up for selection for the second or third tests at the very least. With Daly's 59th minute replacement for Tommy Seymour he seemed the only midweek starter with a chance at the test bench. An ideal man to fill the 23 jersey due to his versatility, able to play at outside centre, wing or fullback at test level.
Williams suggested out of contention
When Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg fell afoul of teammate Conor Murray's elbow 20 minutes into the Crusaders game and ending his tour, Williams remained on the wing with Anthony Watson coming off the bench to fill the fullback berth. A confusing decision to most as Williams had been the stand out player for Wales during their tour to New Zealand a year ago, at fullback. Garland even admitted he saw Williams as a winger and not fullback for the tour. The evidence available heavily suggested he was not in consideration to take any part in the first test. For all money it seemed the back 3 from the Maori All Blacks victory the previous week would retain their jerseys. With the out of form George North, the reliable if uninspiring Halfpenny and the only standout winger at the time Anthony Watson all penned into most fans and pundits predicted test team. Which is why the selection of Daly and Williams was met with such surprise yesterday evening, for what seems like the first time on tour Gatland was receiving praise! The two now test starters had shown the most attacking threat from the back 3 seen on tour, with Jack Nowell unlucky not to feature from the bench after his 2 trys against the Chiefs. Halfpenny claims the 23 jersey with his ability to play wing and fullback, as well as having an impressive 100% record from the boot on tour. Yet there is still time for Nowell, if he impresses against the final midweek game against the Hurricanes he could still feature in the second and third tests.
Make or break
There are many positives for picking Daly and Williams as starters, most of which gear around their attacking instincts and intelligence. Far surpassing the attacking nature of North and Halfpenny, who are world class players in their own right. But North is not the man that caused such headaches to the Australians four years ago and Halfpenny may have the dominance when it comes to field positioning, but neither of these will aid in scoring enough points to beat the All Blacks. A minimum of two to three tries will be needed to beat the back to back world champions, Williams and Daly are the correct men to take the game to New Zealand.
While these two have the potential to cause havoc against an All Black defence, niggling concerns are starting to grow. One of which refers again to Halfpenny's supremacy in the air and backfield positioning, one of Beauden Barrett's biggest attacking weapons are his cross-field and chip kicks, Halfpenny is one of the best in the world at defending these tactics with the field he covered against the Maori All Blacks last weekend. The other concern is this back three has never started together and Williams in particular has only played one game at 15 on tour. Questioning whether this backline will have the kind of cohesion and game time required to face the all imposing All Blacks. They may have played a large hand in putting the Chiefs to the sword on Tuesday, but that was a team shorn of their international contingent. All Blacks Damien McKenzie, Aaron Cruden, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Charlie Ngatai and Anton Lienert-Brown and Maori All Black James Lowe were all missing. Any team in the world lacking 6 All Blacks would be left considerably weakened. Questioning whether the Lions test back 3 will be able to create the same kind of try scoring opportunities that saw Nowell and Payne cross the whitewash, with a total of 4 trys for the Lions that day.
Communication and familiarity is huge for defensive organisation, you only have to see the George North handling error last weekend that gifted the Maori All Blacks their only try, which allowed them to take an early 7-6 lead at 13 minutes. New Zealand are the worst team in the world to present an unorganised backline to. They have proven themselves as the most intelligent attacking team on the planet and will be able to punish any half chances given to them if the back three are not all singing from the same hymn sheet. The young debutant Rieko Ioane showed this against Nowell in the Blues mid week clash, punishing the Exeter Chief for being found wanting out wide and putting on the burners to open up the score sheet at 7 minutes.
A calculated risk it seems for Gatland as he places his faith in potentially the most exciting back 3 selection possible. With the likes of crashball centres Ben Te'o and Jonathan Davies in midfield, gaps will be opened and if they stand any chance of winning Williams and co will have to identify and utilise as many chances as they are given. The recovery of Owen Farrell to partner Conor Murray at fly-half will be another boost, after showing he has the best distribution skills from 10, he could be the key to unleashing the Saturday men. But if they are not all on song and present performances similar to the losses against the Blues and Highlanders, the Lions could find themselves in hot water. Relying on the foot of Farrell and forwards dominance may get the Lions past the Crusaders, but it is widely accepted that this is not the strategy to overcome the All Blacks.
Warren Gatland has become widely known as a man who enjoys a mind game or two with his opponents, and it appears he has done so again against his fellow country man and opposition head coach Steve Hansen. Gatland appears to have being lulling the All Blacks into a false sense of security that they would be contending with the same type of back 3 Wales and the Lions have been using for the last half decade. Big athletic wingers with a smart defensive fullback who's main role is to defuse opposition attack and gain field position. Gatland starting Williams and Daly the day before the squad announced would have left Steve Hansen with the assumption he would be facing the same back three he had the chance to analyse against the Maori All Blacks the previous weekend. But the test back 3 for this coming Saturday could not be more different.
This is a back three with pace and smarts, all of whom are accomplished counter attackers from both wing and 15. Williams first instinct is to assess the attacking options for himself or his teammates. Watson brings dazzling footwork and speed unheard of in England since the great Jason Robinson. While Daly is not far behind, the Welsh will still have memories of the kind of top speed Daly showed to outpace Alex Cuthbert and score the match winning try in the 2017 Six Nations. Williams may not have the speed of his wingers, but you only have to see the match opening try in the Pro12 final to see the kind of vision and finishing ability he possesses.
Leaving Hansen with a squad announced in preparation for the famed 'Gatland ball', instead he has an entirely different structure to face. With a lineup including the inexperienced Rieko Ioane, out of position Ryan Crotty and an Aaron Smith still not back to his usual heights, Gatland has done the very best he can to lead his opposition into relatively unexplored grounds.
Steve Hansen is a man who rarely (if ever) find himself uncertain or worried, and while this will not have left Hansen and his All Blacks unsure of themselves by any means, it will give the Lions the chance to present something so far unseen this tour. Allowing New Zealand time to analyse and prepare for your game plan is something Gatland clearly understands is unacceptable when aspiring to win a Lions tour in New Zealand in the professional era. This late change and contradiction to the predicted test squad structure we have seen so far presents the All Blacks with the narrowest window available to analyse and adjust to their opposition. In admission this is a small percentage attributing the overall match result, however these small percentages can mean the difference between victory and defeat. A terrible cliche, but a cliche for a reason. Will we see the a kind of performance the midweek Lions showcased against the Chiefs? Or will Lions fans be left with the kind of disappointing performance that saw their first defeat on tour to the Blues? Lions fans will be hoping for he former, at the very least Gatland has left for an interesting build up the the series opener.