With just 9 days and two warm-up games left for the 2017 Lions to stake their claim for a test spot time is running out. So which Wales players have pushed themselves to the front of the queue and who is playing catchup?
When Stuart Hogg was once again named Six Nations player of tournament Wales’ ever present full back must have wandered what chance he had of lining up against the All Blacks, but the Scot's untimely, injury-forced exit from the tour has left Halfpenny in the 15 shirt driving seat. His defensive work and tactical nous are long-time favourites of Gatland’s and his world class boot is a weapon few coaches will ever turn down. Gatland has urged the Welshman to step things up in attack, something his competition do that bit better, but you have to think Halfpenny will get the nod next week.
Captain he may be but assured of a spot he most certainly is not. In what is arguably the toughest selection to call Gatland is spoilt for choice right across his back row. Injury has limited Waburton to playing catch-up so far this tour. He has himself admitted he’s still off his best. As Gatland knows though that best is truly world class. But will it be there in time for next weekend? Lots will hinge on how he goes from the bench against NZ Maori.
Anyone thinking the 10 jersey was a straight shoot-out between Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton was reminded that there is a world class back-up waiting in the wings after an assured performance in Tuesday’s defeat to the Highlanders. Farrell’s injury means there could yet be a twist in the fly half selection. If he does recover though a test spot may be out of reach next week for Biggar, especially given the Englishman’s flexibility to drop into midfield.
Another long-time favorite of Gatland’s, Davies has delivered exactly what has been asked of his so far this tour and is making a strong case to start in the opening test. While the likes of Jonathan Joseph have perhaps shown greater flair in attack Davies’ all round game has been clean and efficient and right up Gatland’s street. As with Biggar, much may pivot on Owen Farrell’s presence at 12 which could sway opinion as to the best combination, but he’s done all he can so far.
As part of the back row trio that so impressively nullified the unbeaten Crusaders Faletau enters the final build up week in pole position to take the number 8 slot. The balance between himself, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien clearly caught the eye of Gatland who’s spoken this week of how impressed he was. A big game player, used to big occasions, Faletau gives the go-forward and defensive solidity Gatland craves. As close to a shoe-in as you can be in an incredibly competitive back row.
Despite starting the tour as favourite to captain the side Alun Wyn Jones has faced big pressure from colleagues in the warm-up proceedings. George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje have all shown what they can offer so far. But what Jones offers too is not in doubt, as 110 international caps goes to show. His leadership qualities will also play well into his all-round offer, particularly if captain Warburton doesn’t make it. Ultimately it may come down to Gatland’s prefered combination in the second row, but the Wales captain will surely be among it.
Despite impressing for Wales in the pre-tour Six Nations the Gloucester man always knew he had a tough battle on his hands to make the Test team and so it’s proved, despite impressing showings. His exclusion from Saturday’s meeting with NZ Maori suggest a midweek berth for the next week or so at least, but his explosive, in-your-face approach may at some point be an attractive proposition as impact from bench.
Another favourite of Gatland’s, North offers the power and potency required for the test arena and looks set to fight off competition to play his way into the match day group for the 1st test. A quiet couple of years at home may have underplayed his potential but an on-form North is a prospect few defenders will look forward to facing (remember THAT tackle?). There’s been signs that he’s getting back to his best. Couple that with the under par of impact made by the likes of Jack Nowell and Tommy Seymour and it seems North will surely play a role.
Something of the forgotten man of the tour so far Tipuric’s chances of a test start look slim as things stand. Often regarded as one of the best back-row forwards around he’s bizarrely struggled to hold down a first-choice spot for most of his international career given the talent around him. And so it’s proving again for the Ospreys man. With big competition it looks like a watching role for now.
Despite calls back home for Williams to feature at full back for his national side Gatland and assistant Rob Howley have been clear in their view that his future lies on the wing, and given the options available there he may well be limited to a midweek role for week one. Discipline has also been a big word in camp of late, something he didn’t help with a yellow card against the Blues. An electric runner, high ball specialist and potent attacker he could offer the spark the Lions are looking for if given the chance.
All reports coming out the camp suggest Owens has become a firm squad favourite on his first Lions tour but may well miss out on a test start first-up. Being handed the captaincy against the Blues shows the regard in which he’s held but pressure from England’s Jamie George in particular has been high. Having worried he’d miss the tour entirely in the build up he may well feel he’s not quite firing on all cylinders, but a bench role at least should be calling.
There is a clear two-horse race at scrum half between Webb and Ireland’s Conor Murray. Webb’s sharp, sniping runs have carried over from national duties to his Lions showings, something that will please a coaching staff looking to create ‘chaos’ in attack. Whichever way they go the nine shirt is well covered, so either way Webb looks set to feature.