Warren Gatland has insisted that captain Sam Warburton remains under pressure to force his way into the British and Irish Lions’ first Test line-up.
Tour skipper Warburton is fit but has been left out of the Lions’ 23 for Tuesday’s Chiefs clash in Hamilton, raising hopes for the Wales flanker to squeeze into the Test squad after ankle trouble.
But head coach Gatland has again reiterated his huge admiration for the back-row unit of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau, that helped the Lions “squeeze the life” out of the Maori in Saturday’s 32-10 triumph.
Warburton continues to chase full match sharpness, and could well take a seat on the bench for Saturday’s first All Blacks Test in Auckland.
“There’s no doubt that there’s some pressure on certain players and certain combinations have gone well,” said Gatland, when quizzed on Warburton’s situation.
“A lot of those guys who played against the Crusaders did exceptionally well, and last night’s performance against the Maori, we dominated territory and possession, and we squeezed the life out them, an unbelievably talented backline that just went nowhere.
“For Sam, look, we were hoping he was going to be part of the 23 against the Crusaders. Unfortunately he rolled his ankle a little bit so hadn’t recovered in time.
“So he had time against the Highlanders and we were able to give him time last night. So there will be some tough debates and discussions to have on the final make-up of what the back-row is going to be for Saturday.”
Gatland claimed he was “always confident” Owen Farrell would be fit for the first Test, despite the England fly-half still battling a thigh issue.
Leigh Halfpenny must complete the head-injury protocols to start at full-back against New Zealand in Auckland on Saturday - so Liam Williams has been handed a chance to impress at 15 against the Chiefs.
Jonathan Joseph’s omission from the 23 to face the Chiefs in Hamilton also raises the prospect of the England centre taking a seat on the bench against the All Blacks for the Test series opener.
Rory Best will captain the Lions on Tuesday, with the six late tour call-ups featuring on the bench to ease the burden on Gatland’s probable Test match squad.
Wales quartet Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis have made the short trip from Auckland to link up with the Lions.
Scotland’s Allan Dell and Finn Russell have jetted in from Australia, and will also provide cover among the replacements.
“I was always confident about Owen Farrell being fit,” said Gatland, of the England fly-half’s quadriceps strain.
“I was never not confident.”
Asked if Joseph’s omission from the Chiefs squad could indicate he has a chance for the first Test, Gatland replied: “Well he’s played pretty well for us.
“Leigh Halfpenny obviously took a knock on the weekend, so he’s going through the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols.
“Apart from that it’s bumps and bruises, we took George Kruis off relatively early because his calf was a bit tight.
“But aside from that nothing that’s a concern for too long. We’re in pretty good shape at the moment.
“There’s an opportunity for Liam Williams to go and impress at full-back.
“All the back-three out there on Tuesday, they’re all pretty versatile.
“We’re giving players a chance here from an attacking perspective.”
LIONS TEAM TO FACE CHIEFS: L Williams (Wales); J Nowell (England), J Payne, R Henshaw (both Ireland), E Daly (England); D Biggar (Wales), G Laidlaw (Scotland); J Marler (England), R Best (Ireland, capt), D Cole (England), I Henderson (Ireland), C Lawes (England), J Haskell (England), J Tipuric (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland).
Replacements: K Dacey (Wales), A Dell (Scotland), T Francis, C Hill, AW Jones, G Davies (all Wales), F Russell, T Seymour (both Scotland).