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Rip-roaring battle among Lions loosies

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 10/06/2017 Daniel Gilhooly

Warren Gatland is giving little away as he surveys a rich lineup of British and Irish Lions loose forward talent for the Test series against the All Blacks.

A tour-ending injury to powerhouse No.8 Billy Vunipola before departure rocked the Lions but several notable performances in their first three games will have eased any worries for coach Gatland.

Asked to nominate the pleasing aspects of the gritty 12-3 defeat of the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday, Gatland went straight to his loose trio.

No.8 Toby Faletau and Irish flankers Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien helped the tourists shade the Crusaders at the breakdown, led a resolute defensive line and formed part of a superior lineout.

O'Mahony impressed with his work rate while the bruising O'Brien displayed little evidence of injury problems which had sidelined him since April.

However, it is athletic Welshman Faletau who has shone brightest and has the inside running to fill Vunipola's sizeable boots.

The 26-year-old was one of the few standouts in the shaky tour-opening defeat of the Provincial Barbarians.

Gatland says Faletau has quickly silenced critics such as former All Blacks No.8 Zinzan Brooke, who felt the Bath forward lacked the "mongrel" for major Tests.

"Some of Toby Faletau's footwork was outstanding," Gatland said.

"Despite what Zinzan Brooke says about him, he posed a lot of problems."

Another No.8 option is Irish ball-carrier CJ Stander, a try-scorer in the loss to the Blues, who added bench punch in Christchurch.

Both flanks are a conundrum, not helped by the anle injury sustained by tour captain Sam Warburton in game one.

When naming his squad, Gatland stressed the experienced openside was no guarantee to play the Tests.

Gatland could be swayed by the merits of two other Welshmen - Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty - for the first Test in Auckland on June 24.

Rising lock Maro Itoje is a possibility on the side of the scrum if the selectors want additional size and ball winning prowess.

Fellow-Englishman James Haskell is the only Test loose forward outsider, having been called up late to replace Vunipola.

"There's a lot of competition in the squad and the players are well aware of that," Gatland said after the Crusaders triumph.

"We laid a marker down tonight and it's a big challenge for the players who take the field against the Highlanders (on Tuesday)."

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