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The 'long discussion' that ended with Williams' cruel Lions cut

By Liam Heagney

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It’s a tough one for Liam Williams to swallow, being one of just two players from last weekend’s first Test matchday 23 not to be involved in this Saturday’s second Lions Test versus the Springboks in Cape Town. The Welsh back played nine minutes off the bench last weekend, entering the fray as a 71st-minute replacement for Duhan van der Merwe with the Lions 19-17 ahead.

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Warren Gatland’s charges eventually went on to seal a 22-17 win with a late Owen Farrell penalty but the Kiwi is obviously no fan of the old adage that you should never change a winning side. Gatland elected to change three of the starting XV when he unveiled his second Test team on Tuesday.

The inclusions of replacements Mako Vunipola and Conor Murray to start were straight swaps as first Test starters Rory Sutherland and Ali Price were given bench roles for this Saturday’s rematch, but Gatland’s decision to bring in Chris Harris from the cold had unfortunate consequences for Williams.

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With Harris taking over the No13 jersey, it was decided that Elliot Daly, the player who was replaced in the starting line-up, was a better bet to fill the No23 jersey, meaning the benched England player elbowed his Welsh rival from the matchday 23.

His omission was accompanied by the decision to also exclude sub flanker Hamish Watson, his place on the bench getting taken by Taulupe Faletau despite his 23-minute contribution as a first Test replacement for Tom Curry.

Explaining the two alterations in personnel to his winning matchday 23, Gatland said: “It was a tough one. Both him and Hamish were tough decisions. We did discuss whether we started Liam on the wing and that was a debate. We kind of felt we considered him as a full-back decision and Stuart Hogg was good last week. There was a significant aerial battle and we looked at that.

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“We came out slightly on top of that in terms of the crumbs that we got but we are expecting a lot more. So it was a long discussion about that but what we talked about as well was the cover that Elliot gives us in terms of being able to cover 13 and the back three. That was a really tough call for Liam to miss out on the squad.”

Williams and Watson, the 2021 Guinness player of the championship, will find themselves in esteemed company this week, sitting in the stands surrounded by other surplus-to-requirement Lions who are used to starting every week for their own countries. Excluding first-choice Test players is a task Gatland admits he still finds most difficult even though this is his third tour in charge of the Lions.

“It’s really tough on some of those players. A lot of them are used to being No1 selections for their home nation and you come on a Lions tour and you are not making the 23. I understand that and appreciate it.

“That is the hardest part of the week – you know you are going to have a number of guys who are incredibly happy to be selected but then you are going to have a group that is going to be incredibly disappointed and I expect that.

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“It’s the hardest thing to deliver those messages and it’s a real challenge. I have spoken to the group and said the guys that are starting, that are in the 23, we have got to make sure we get ourselves mentally right. If we are four, five per cent off mentally then it’s going to be a long day for us and if we can be mentally right we have got a chance of winning the series.

“If we are not and we lose the second Test then you will probably see a number of changes going into the third Test, and if we do win the series you will probably see a number of changes as well for the third Test.

“Hopefully, for those guys who have missed out, there is a lot of motivation for them to stay focused and stay involved because the tour is not over and they potentially have a chance for the following week.”

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The 'long discussion' that ended with Williams' cruel Lions cut

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