Ronan O’Gara has recommended turning to English players as the Lions seek to pick themselves up off the canvas after their knock-down against South Africa A in Cape Town.
The 130-cap former fly-half includes seven of Eddie Jones’ men in his team for the first Test between the Lions and the Springboks on Saturday week.
Just two Welsh players, Liam Williams and Alun Wyn Jones, make the cut, with the likes of Josh Adams and Taulupe Faletau missing out. There are four Irish in O’Gara’s selection and two Scots.
Evidently, the La Rochelle rugby boss isn’t reading too much into England finishing fifth in the Six Nations and Wales ending the campaign as champions, perhaps believing events of four months ago amount to ancient history in sporting terms.
Read more: Live updates as Lions name final team before Tests today
Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Tom Curry are all favoured by the Lion from 2005 and 2009.
Farrell’s inclusion ahead of Dan Biggar will divide opinion as the Saracen hasn’t been playing especially well. He had a less than impressive game in the 17-13 defeat against South Africa A on Wednesday evening, his lowlights seeing him cost the Lions a try with a charged down kick and he also missed touch from a penalty.
He did improve as the game went on, though, and O’Gara believes in him.
Calling him and Conor Murray proven big-game players, the ex-Munster player said on Sky Sports : “When I think of great Lions I look at Dallaglio, Johnson, Warburton, O’Connell, O’Driscoll — I think Owen Farrell has the capacity to do that in this series.”
But there is acknowledgement that the England captain isn’t exactly purring in South Africa.
“He’s played a season in the English championship,” said O’Gara.
“I don’t think he’s playing his top rugby.
“But I think he has the capacity to be at peak by Saturday week.”
The Irishman qualified his analysis by saying the Lions wouldn’t lose anything by opting for Biggar.
Maybe his call to leave out Adams is the biggest surprise of the lot.
Indeed, the secretary of the Josh Adams fan club isn’t needed to ask what more could the Cardiff Blue have done to advance his cause, with eight tries in three games. He has been hard-working, confident and clinical, on top of his game in pretty much every respect, and he is a player Warren Gatland is known to admire.
But O’Gara opts for Stuart Hogg at full-back and so shifts Liam Williams onto one wing with Anthony Watson on the other.
“The back-three is so hard to pick,” said O’Gara.
“Josh Adams scores tries, and we are going to need to score a try or two, while Louis Rees-Zammit has probably been very unlucky.
“High ball is crucial and, for me, Liam Williams is different class there.
“Anthony Watson just seems to have unbelievable pace, while Hogg is hurting and this could be the opportunity to relaunch him.”
Up front Alun Wyn Jones is included after his improbable return to the squad from a dislocated shoulder. “He’s the leader, the epicentre of this team,” said O’Gara.
“He goes straight into the engine room and you are hoping that he defies medical logic to do what he does best.”
But there isn’t a place for Faletau, with Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson and Tom Curry making up the back row.
Curry performed strongly against South Africa A, albeit in his usual position of openside. O’Gara finds room for him at No. 8 and so is able to accommodate both him and Watson, the Scot who seems to bounce off would-be tacklers and never misses a tackle, in the same breakaway trio.
Of Curry, he said: “I saw him live playing for England against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-finals and he blew me away.
“We came across him at club level this year and he’s a phenomenal player.”
Ronan O’Gara’s Lions XV : Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Bundee Aki, Liam Williams; Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Maki Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson, Tom Curry.
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