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The 2017 Lions lesson colouring Gatland's thinking regarding 2021 Test team selection

By Liam Heagney

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Warren Gatland has remarked how impressed he is by the speed his 2021 Lions have gelled, but he insisted there is nothing fixed in terms of who might make the July 24 Test team that will take on the Springboks in Cape Town, the coach referencing what happened on the 2017 tour where two players starred against the Chiefs on the Tuesday and made the first Test team versus the All Blacks the following Saturday.

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The match in Hamilton versus the Super Rugby Chiefs was controversial as this was the game where Gatland selected the infamous ‘Geography Six’ on the Lions bench after they were called in to bolster numbers at Test week training. 

However, while that legacy didn’t reflect well on the tradition of the Lions, a more favourable development was how that week illustrated Gatland hadn’t a closed mind in terms of his Test team selection as the impressive performances of Liam Williams at full-back and Elliot Daly on the left wing against the Chiefs catapulted them into the first Test team that faced New Zealand just four days later in Auckland.  

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That’s a memory Gatland touched on while speaking on the Channel Island of Jersey after naming his team for this Saturday’s eve-of-tour-departure match against Japan in Edinburgh, an XV that contains no starting English player for the first time since 1950.  

In selecting six Irish, five Welsh and four Scots, Gatland has gone for some combinations already familiar on the Test circuit to enable the Lions to get off to a cohesive start but he was adamant they were no real indication in it as to how selection might unfold on tour in South Africa next month.   

“It will be interesting to see how these combinations go… but we are not fixed in our thoughts, we haven’t got any pre-conceived ideas about the Test side at the moment,” he explained. “We are giving everyone an opportunity and we want to see who puts their hand up and makes a real impression and players that play well will get their chance. 

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“The door is never closed for anyone. That was definitely the message in 2017, even before the first Test. We said to the players who played against the Chiefs on the Tuesday that we hadn’t selected the side and there was still an opportunity for players to get selected for the Test side and a couple of those players put their hand up against the Chiefs that night and were selected in the Test side. 

“It’s trying to be clear in our thoughts but also not being closed off to the possibilities. We feel we have some real quality men, some great players and everyone is going to get their chance. Someone is going to come through that a lot of people may not expect and that is the exciting part from the coaching aspect. We’re not fixed on who we think is going to be making the test team.”

Lions preparations were rushed in 2017, the squad having limited time in Ireland before flying to New Zealand and playing their opening match in Whangarei just three days after landing in Auckland. This time around, the majority of the squad will have spent the guts of two weeks in Jersey before playing Japan in Edinburgh and then flying down to South Africa with a couple of days extra lead-in in the host country before the opening game there versus the Emirates Lions on July 3.

Gatland is delighted with preparations so far. “They have all stepped up and the best thing is that quality players bring the best out of everyone and we have already seen that with the group how everyone seemed to raise the standard. It felt like as a coaching group we have been able to move a lot quicker than we have normally done. 

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“We have got absolute quality players here that take in the information so quickly and they have already been so accurate, so the whole group have really impressed us and we are excited about those players that get the opportunity to go out there and perform so I don’t think there is any one person or any two or three players that have really stuck out. 

“We have had some players that have been training well as have the whole group, they have been absolutely outstanding, they have been excellent in terms of the way they have conducted themselves and the way they have prepared so far and trained. ”

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The 2017 Lions lesson colouring Gatland's thinking regarding 2021 Test team selection

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