June 21, 2017 / 4:03 AM / 2 months ago

Improving squad gives Lions selectors plenty to ponder

Rugby Union - British and Irish Lions vs Maori All Blacks - Rotorua, New Zealand - June 17, 2017 - British and Irish Lions player Ben Te’o is tackled by Maori All Blacks player Damian McKenzie.Stringer

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Decision day has arrived for the British and Irish Lions with coaches locked away in what many had considered to be a predictable selection meeting for the first test against the All Blacks on Saturday.

Assistant Graham Rowntree admitted the process was far from straightforward, however, saying the discussions would be among the hardest they had faced so far after the entire squad were displaying signs of reaching their peak on the 10-match tour.

READ: Bug off, cautious Lions sweep for listening devices

"Picking the squad every week has been tough," he told reporters in Auckland on Wednesday, a day after the supposed second-string side produced a clinical effort to dismiss the Waikato Chiefs 34-6.

"It is going to be even tougher. A few guys put their hands up last night. That will not be ignored, it will be taken under consideration," the former England prop added.

"We have got a real challenge, it was always going to be a big debate because the quality of the squad is such, last night quite a few of them put their hands up."

READ: Lions building nicely ahead of tests - Gatland

Until Tuesday's match, the opening test side had been expected to have been drawn principally from the players who first beat the seven-time Super Rugby champion Canterbury Crusaders 12-3 then the Maori All Blacks 32-10 on Saturday.

None were selected for the Chiefs game in Hamilton.

Head coach Warren Gatland, however, has repeated the mantra that those who missed out on the first test at Eden Park, could still press for inclusion later in the series due to injury, a drop in form or combinations not working as well as envisaged.

Liam Williams and Ireland loose forward CJ Stander both stood out on Tuesday with the Wales fullback producing the kind of attacking flair that had been missing in the Lions' previous five games. Both could earn a spot on the bench.

Despite the travails of finalising their own side, Rowntree said the All Blacks were probably facing an even bigger selection headache, particularly in the forwards, where the Lions have started to impress.

"They are an honest team, an efficient honest forward pack and we have got our hands full," Rowntree added.

"You saw the challenges we had at scrum time in Otago, against the Crusaders as well against an All Blacks front five, but the guys have learned and are adapting well.

"Those challenges, those encounters are what we need to be able to learn and step up a gear for this pack at the weekend which as I said, I think is the best in the world."

Possible Lions first test team: 15-Leigh Halfpenny, 14-George North, 13-Jonathan Davies, 12-Ben Te'o, 11-Anthony Watson, 10-Owen Farrell, 9-Conor Murray, 8-Taulupe Faletau, 7-Sean O'Brien, 6-Peter O'Mahony (captain), 5-George Kruis, 4-Maro Itoje, 3-Tadhg Furlong, 2-Jamie George, 1-Maka Vunipola.

Replacements: 16-Ken Owens, 17-Jack McGrath, 18-Kyle Sinckler, 19-Alun Wyn Jones, 20-CJ Stander, 21-Rhys Webb, 22-Jonathan Sexton, 23-Liam Williams.

Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O'Brien

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