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Gatland's Lions keep All Blacks guessing

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 15/06/2017 Angelo Risso

The British and Irish Lions will keep the All Blacks guessing on their Test XV until the last possible second, with coach Warren Gatland naming an unexpectedly mixed matchday squad for Saturday's clash with the Maori All Blacks.

A number of likely Test starters - including first-five Owen Farrell, lock Alun Wyn Jones, hooker Ken Owens and tighthead Dan Cole - are not in the starting side, while incumbent skipper Sam Warburton will also start on the pine.

He is replaced as captain by Irish flanker Peter O'Mahony.

Conventional wisdom held that the match against the Maoris in Rotorua - an "unofficial fourth Test" - would see the Lions' Test XV unleashed for the first time.

Instead, Gatland has reverted mostly to the squad that out-muscled the Crusaders 12-3, while adding four players from matches against the Blues and provincial Barbarians.

He has demoted the entire starting XV against the Highlanders, which lost 23-22 to a late Marty Banks penalty goal, to either the bench or stands.

While Gatland said his side was slowly building into the three Tests, which begin next Saturday, he insisted his run-on side against the All Blacks was far from settled - with performances against the Maori set to play a major role in his thinking.

But some combinations would be held over, in order to avoid the gaze of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and his men, who play Samoa on Friday.

"Even though we're a strong side, we've got to make sure we're not fully showing our hand - we're keeping some combinations back," Gatland said.

"We're just trying to mix and match a little bit, and think two steps ahead."

With Farrell left on the bench, Johnny Sexton has earned a second chance in the No.10 jumper after a poor Baabaas showing, partnering Conor Murray in the halves.

Welsh goalkicking metronome Leigh Halfpenny, meanwhile, looks to have the inside running on Stuart Hogg's fullback spot after the Scot fractured a facial bone.

"(Johnny) was down a little bit on confidence, and he's got a little of his mojo back at the moment," Gatland said.

"We know how strong Leigh is defensively and how hard he works off the ball, and his goalkicking, (but) it's the attacking threat we're looking for him to add."

Up front, Mako Vunipola is joined by hooker Jamie George and Irish tighthead Tadhg Furlong, with Englishmen Maro Itoje and George Kruis behind them.

O'Mahony, Irish bulldozer Sean O'Brien and Welsh No.8 Taulupe Faletau make up the Lions' burly loose forward trio, with Gatland insisting a significant performance against the Maori would do their chances of a Test start no harm.

"We're all well aware that you get one or two chances and a couple of opportunities - some people are lucky and, for whatever reason, you may be involved in a game or a combination that goes really well," Gatland said.

"You've got to, as coaches, reward that."

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: Leigh Halfpenny, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te'o, George North, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Taulupe Faletau, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony (c), George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. RESERVES: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Iain Henderson, Sam Warburton, Greig Laidlaw, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly.

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