Gatland gives free rein to devastating Lions back-row against the Sharks
The explosive England forward is the only member of the original squad selected by Warren Gatland not to have been involved in the wins against Japan and the Sigma Lions after he came into camp with a pectoral injury sustained on club duty for Sale.
But he will make his first appearance of the tour at openside flanker and forms a dynamic loose trio full of ball-carrying clout alongside compatriot Sam Simmonds and Wales’ Josh Navidi.
Simmonds will be hoping to make his mark at number eight after being persistently overlooked by England boss Eddie Jones since winning the last of his seven caps in 2018, while late call-up Navidi excels on both sides of the ball.
“I spoke to them all last (Sunday) night and said ‘look, you’ve got a license from me to go and get your hands on the ball and express yourselves’.
“I said ‘you’re probably not renowned as line-out experts but as ever you’ve got to play to your strengths’.
“They’re very strong defenders and they’re exciting ball carriers and they’ve all got footwork.
“We don’t want to pigeonhole them. We want to give players the opportunity to play to their strengths and for some that’s getting their hands on the ball and using that ability.
“It’s pretty exciting and I’m really looking forward to how they’re going as a trio.”
“There are a couple of other players who we could have looked at but I just thought that Iain’s an obvious choice for us given his experience and stature in the game,” Gatland said.
Conor Murray, Jones’ permanent replacement as tour skipper, is on the bench as scrum-half cover for Gareth Davies, who is making his first start of the tour at Emirates Airline Park.
Gatland has stuck to his policy of ensuring all squad members will start at least one of the first three games with wing Anthony Watson, centre Elliot Daly, props Mako Vunipola and Zander Fagerson, second row Adam Beard and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie also in action.
The Lions boss is adamant that selection for the series against the Springboks, which begins in Cape Town on July 24, is wide open.
“As we get a little bit closer to the Test series we’ll start looking at potential combinations,” he said.
“I want this group of men to feel that everyone has an opportunity, particularly right up until the Test matches. We won’t be showing our hand in terms of what we think the Test side will be.
“The message four years ago to the players who played on the Tuesday night before the first Test was that we hadn’t selected the first Test team and there was still positions and spots up for grabs.
“A couple of players played well that night and were selected in that first Test team. I think that, as players, they want to hear that message.
“They want to hear that we haven’t made up our mind and that everyone has an opportunity.”
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