HAMILTON, New Zealand — The Test selection will already be pencilled in for Saturday’s match against the All Blacks, but Warren Gatland’s biggest dilemma looks likely to be the back three.
Gatland says there are final decisions “still to be made at lock, back-row, the back three as well, and midfield too” and the coaches will meet on Wednesday to finalise selection, but the dilemmas in all areas bar the wingers and fullback are likely to be a case of juggling between two names.
It is the back three where there is ambiguity and players have been charged with nailing the colours to the Test mast when they face the Chiefs on Tuesday.
Leigh Halfpenny, who is going through return-to-play protocols after taking a bang to the head against the Maori All Blacks, looks to have secured the fullback spot but Gatland wants Liam Williams, who starts against the Chiefs on Tuesday, to push his claims.
Jack Nowell, the Exeter winger, struggled defensively against the Blues and made just 29 metres with ball in hand against the Highlanders, but Gatland feels he is the best winger in the northern hemisphere at playing off scrum-half and fly-half.
“I think he is absolutely outstanding in terms of the amount of touches he has in the game and his pick and go,” Gatland said of Nowell and his England teammate Elliot Daly, who was on the bench against the Highlanders, and also has a chance to force his way into the Test squad if he plays well on Tuesday.
“It’s a great opportunity for Elliot and I think he’s done pretty well,” Gatland said.
“Again he hasn’t had a lot of space, a lot of chances or a lot of ball in open space. With the small chances he’s had he’s done well.
“He’s been accurate and he gives us a left-foot option in terms of our kicking strategy if we want to play territory and exit. I think he’s done pretty well so far on tour with not many opportunities. He hasn’t made a lot of mistakes and it’s a big chance for him on Tuesday night.”
But the fact they are in the midweek team, playing just four days before the first Test cannot be ignored and Tommy Seymour’s place on the bench on Tuesday suggests his chances of featuring against the All Blacks are slim.
Gatland has spoken all along about how he wants to wrap the matchday squad in cotton wool ahead of Saturday, meaning he has an extremely good idea of the make-up of the starting 15 and bench.
From those who played against the Maori, George North has been charged with coming off his wing and playing off broken field.
“One of the things with George is it’s a target for all out wingers to try and get 15 touches of the ball because it tends to make a difference,” Gatland said.
“I think he has done alright going forward. [With] Jonathan Davies’ kick throughs, he has put a lot of pressure on close to the goal line.
“I’d like to see him get his hands on the ball a bit more and use some of that footwork and power that he has going forward.”
Anthony Watson was on the other wing from North, and has credit in the bank after impressing Gatland by how he played off the bench against the Crusaders.
So the onus is on Williams, Daly and Nowell to impress against the Chiefs.
For all the talk of the match being devalued due to the six call ups on Saturday, they know Test places are on the line.
It is up to them to force Gatland’s hand in an area that is already causing him a headache as by his own admission there will be “quite lengthy debates in terms of finalising that back three”.