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Lions won’t pick all their best players in starting XV as Gatland opts for ‘finishers’

Warren Gatland isn’t always a man who needs prodding to get his point across.

Sure, he’ll answer the question posed to him, but if he drops in something extra, there’s likely a good reason for it.

So to hear him, often unprompted, speak about how important selecting the bench will be to the Lions in the Tests against South Africa, and the balance within in, suggests he’s already sowing the seeds of what will turn out to be crucial in the coming days and weeks.

Read more:South Africa v Lions team announcement Live as Boks go public and Gatland tells players who’s made it

In particular, one quote stood out above all others.

“We’re thinking it’s not just about the starting 15, it’s about looking at combinations and potentially the guys coming off the bench, and what sort of impact they could have, and having the eight players on the bench,” said Gatland.

“Sometimes in the past I know in my experience with Wales when we had that successful run, sometimes we had probably the better starters sitting on the bench, but they were also the better finishers.

“You have got to look at the individuals and think if someone is a better starter, and someone would have more of an impact on the bench.

“We are having those discussions about players in the squad and how that may look. We know how physical these games are going to be and we want some energy and some real impact from players coming off the bench.”

Make no mistake, getting the bench correct is a big part of how Gatland will go about beating the world champions on home soil.

Each of the eight bench spots to fill will be thought about carefully in terms of how the Lions can gain some semblance of an advantage as the match nears its climax, particularly against a Springboks side who could be a little rusty.

Perhaps the first thing to address is whether Gatland goes for traditional 5-3 forwards/backs split, or replicates South Africa’s infamous 6-2 split from two years ago?

The former seems the sensible option but a 6-2 split might be a temptation that Gatland can’t resist.

If he loads the bench with forwards, it opens the possibility to picking a 19-20-21 combination of say Adam Beard-Hamish Watson-Sam Simmonds, which could help the Lions push the envelope as their pack seek to move around the hosts’ forwards to nullify their counter-rucking.

We’ve seen Gatland do that to decent effect so far, with Simmonds impressing from the bench, but you could just as easily swap those names above with the likes of Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill, Courtney Lawes, Josh Navidi or Jack Conan.

And, of course, Alun Wyn Jones were he not to start.

However, the other thing with a 6-2 split is where that leaves your cover in the backs.

Elliot Daly is the ideal outside back cover regardless of the split, with his ability to play in midfield and across the back-three.

But what about fly-half?

If they start Dan Biggar alongside Owen Farrell, a combination we’ve yet to see but one we know Gatland wouldn’t be afraid of opting for, then there are no worries over a fly-half back-up.

But if it’s Biggar and a more natural centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Chris Harris for example, then a 6-2 split leaves you exposed with no outside-half were Biggar to be injured.

That’s all there to be weighed up by Gatland and his coaching ticket.

What about the non-negotiable positions on the bench? The ones that won’t be affected by whether it’s a 5-3 or a 6-2 split.

Well, hooker is certainly an interesting one.

Luke Cowan-Dickie has been arguably the best hooker on the tour, but, as that Gatland quote alludes to, it could be the case that he’s also the best bench option.

Don’t be surprised to see the starting jersey go to either Ken Owens or Jamie George, but the one who misses out in that battle won’t even make the 23.

With the props, it’s tough to say on the loose-head – with Rory Sutherland and Mako Vunipola offering plenty off the bench so far presuming that Wyn Jones starts.

Tight-head is much simpler, with it testament to Tadhg Furlong’s talents that Kyle Sinckler is only nailed on for the bench despite a very fine tour.

Pick your Lions XV now

Second-row could be influenced by how many back-rowers the Lions opt for, with Lawes a possible option for either.

However, Beard’s cameo off the bench against South Africa A – the closest the Lions have come to Test rugby so far – might just have pushed him into a replacement role this weekend.

If it’s just the one back-rower, you’d assume it would be Watson, but again it’s anyone’s guess.

Scrum-half could be interesting as Ali Price has been the best of a less-than-stellar bunch.

It feels like Conor Murray is being shifted away from the team in some of the snippets in press conferences, but he is the most pragmatic option in the squad.

If the Lions are looking for an option to change the game off the bench, then they could consider starting Murray and putting Price on the bench.

If they’re sold on Price being the starter, then suddenly Gareth Davies, who hasn’t really put his hand up on this tour, could be an impact option.

Or they could use Murray as a calming presence to bring on as the match enters that crucial final quarter.

Whatever they do with selection, it’s worth remembering that the best players might not necessarily be the ones in the starting XV.

They might instead be trusted with finishing the match.

Gatland wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to sow those seeds into the public’s mind, otherwise.

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