Definitely the surprise of the selection, Corbisiero only joined the squad the squad after fellow prop Cian Healy suffered an ankle injury in the victory over Western Force. Having been on tour in Argentina with England, the Northampton bound front-row made the journey to Australia and started the 64-0 victory over the Combined Country side, and his selection shows Gatland’s determination to dominate the Australian scrum.
The No2 shirt could have been claimed by any one of the three hookers at the start of the tour for all the wrong reasons, as neither Youngs, Richard Hibbard or Rory Best – who replaced the banned Dylan Hatley – could throw reliably in the line-out. It was Youngs’ performance against the Waratahs last week alongside Adam Jones that seems to have given him the edge, after he nailed every line-out and offers much more in terms of ball carrying than his rivals.
Seen somewhat as a stalwart of the Lions scrum, Jones entered the tour as favourite for the tight-head position. He faced some stiff competition from England’s Dan Cole, with the performing very well throughout the warm-up matches, but having featured in all three Tests on the tour of South Africa, his experience will be crucial to a front-row that contains two Lions Test debutants.
Alun Wyn Jones:
The role as to who would partner Paul O’Connell seemed a battle between Jones and Richie Gray pre-tour, with the Scottish lock the more likely candidate. However, with Gray mis-firing throughout the tour so far, and Jones putting in a powerful performance in the win over the Waratahs, Jones has done enough to claim the position as his own. Another to have featured in all three Tests in 2009.
The former Lions captain has been hugely influential on the pitch, and his place selection seemed nailed on providing he remained fit. This may be why he has seen just 127 minutes of action so far, the least amount of time of any second-row in the squad, but expect him to lead by example on Saturday.
Croft is one of the most naturally gifted players of his time, demonstrated by his superb try against the Waratahs last week, but it was his performance against Western Force that made him a serious contender for the blindside flanker spot. He already has two tries in Lions Test rugby, and having seen off Dan Lydiate and Sean O’Brien, he will want to keep on top of his game to remain as the leading No6.
There were initial questions raised whether the tour captain would merit a place in the Test XV especially as he entered the tour with a knee injury, and these questions intensified following the performances of Justin Tipuric and his own less than impressive run-out against the Queensland Reds. But he showed why Gatland has put his faith in him with a tremendous display against the Waratahs to secure his place in the side and lead out the Lions when they return to Brisbane.
The battle between Heaslip and Toby Faletau for the No8 position has been fascinating to watch, with both seemingly spurred on the others performances. Faletau would have been favourite to take the spot before the tour, and he currently has the most carries on the tour with 55, but Heaslip’s ability to turn these carries into metres gained – 46 carries for 177 metre compared to Faletau’s 141 metres – has seen him edge in front.
The Wales scrum-half was near-enough nailed on to start the first Test, and he showed why in his appearances so far. Similar to O’Connell, Phillips has only played 127 minutes so far, demonstrating Gatland’s preference to protect his Test players. His physicality and presence around the breakdown gives him the edge over Ben Youngs and Conor Murray.
The Lions fly-half selection always attracts significant attention, and Sexton follows names such as Gregor Townsend, Jonny Wilkinson and Stephen Jones as the first Test No10. The Irishman’s all round game has been brilliant so far, and with the pressure of goal kicking taken off him by the mercurial Leigh Halfpenny, Sexton can concentrate on his running game, which will be crucial in the Lions are to succeed.
One of the stand-out players on the Tour so far, North seemed to step up a gear when he set foot Down Under, having scored twice already and beaten 12 defenders along the way. His injury scare has provided a nervy week and a half since he picked up the hamstring strain, but the announcement that he passed a fitness test three days before the game will have calmed the rapidly building nerves of the Lions contingent.
Davies was seen as an outside chances for the Test squad, and while he has been superb so far – especially against the Waratahs – he would most likely not have featured in the starting line-up had Jamie Roberts been fit. However, injuries come as part of the tour, and Davies will be keen to show everyone what he can offer alongside Brian O’Driscoll to ensure that even if Roberts is fit to return next week, he holds onto to starting jersey.
The talismanic Irish centre is playing on his fourth Lions tour, and will once again start the first Test – a feat he has replicated on each tour he’s been on. He has scored three tries already in his time Down Under, and who can forget the way he burst onto the rugby world stage in the same way he burst through the Australian defence at The Gabba in 2001.
Had Tommy Bowe been fit, he would probably have taken the right wing position, but a hand injury has denied him so Cuthbert gets his chance to perform. Cuthbert had a brilliant Six Nations campaign, but his displays have waned a little on this tour, with his defensive frailties becoming alarmingly exposed in the warm-up games. No one can doubt his finishing though, having already bagged 3 tries.
The first name on the team sheet, Halfpenny caps an unfaultable two years with being named as the Lions starting full-back. His kicking for goal has been perfect (we’ll ignore his single miss against the Combined Country as he’d just come off the bench) and he has even crossed the whitewash three times, finishing two flowing moves against the Waratahs that were a delight for any Lions fan to watch.