British and Irish Lions 2017: Warren Gatland picked first squad a week ago despite Sam Warburton selection 'claim'

Warburton claimed the team would be decided on Wednesday night, but Gatland revealed that he informed the players who would feature in the first match before they arrived in New Zealand

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The Independent Online

Just one day after Sam Warburton claimed he hoped to be in the first British and Irish Lions squad, Warren Gatland revealed that the team that will face the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday night was actually decided a week ago, long before the squad touched down in Auckland this week.

Ahead of their first full training session at the QBE Stadium in Albany, Gatland named his squad that sees Warburton lead the side in the first of their 10 tour matches against what is by and large the weakest of the seven non-Test teams that they will face.

With Gatland keen to rest players who featured in the domestic play-offs from the game, the New Zealander’s hands were somewhat tied with who he could select for the tour opener. But even though Warburton used Wednesday’s press conference to push his own claims for selection, the flanker already knew he would be leading the side out at the Toll Stadium in Whangerei on Saturday night.

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“We named the team to the players a week ago, so they've done a pretty good job of keeping it quiet for a week,” Gatland said.

“We had 14 players in Wales for the first week, so 13 of those are involved.”

The two that weren’t immediately available are lock Alun Wyn Jones and fly-half Jonathan Sexton, two players whose sides were knocked out of the Pro12 semi-finals in the form of the Ospreys and Leinster respectively. The pair are also short on match fitness, and as such will be handed an early run-out against the Provincial side this weekend.

Two other names that stand out are that of Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te’o, the two England internationals who between them boast just 16 international caps. Both have prior experience of playing in New Zealand, Sinckler through a replacement appearance during England’s last tour here in 2014 against the Crusaders and Te’o through his rugby league days in playing against the New Zealand Warriors as well as growing up in Auckland.

Gatland, though, played down the importance of giving them early game time to help settle into their first Lions tour, and instead admitted that his hand was forced due to resting players from Wasps, Exeter Chiefs, Munster and the Scarlets following last weekend’s domestic finals.

“I just think the selections almost happen by mistake, they happened to be the players who were available in the first couple of weeks,” he said.

“So that's just really how it's happened. For us from a coaching point of view we're pretty excited about the potential and possibility for a lot of combinations.”

The head coach also confirmed that he has already discussed the teams that will face not only the Auckland Blues on Wednesday, but also the Canterbury Crusaders next weekend with his other coaching staff. However, it will not be until the game against the New Zealand Maori – the unofficial fourth Test that is just a week out from the first Test against the All Blacks, that his Test side will begin to take shape.

“The Maoris game is important for us,” he added. “You might be reasonably close to the first Test starting XV by then. It's a little down the track as well.”

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