'They're Test players' – Laidlaw defends call-ups

Greig Laidlaw has defended Warren Gatland’s decision to draft in six new players to the British and Irish Lions squad.

Gatland came under fire for appearing to prioritise geographic proximity over meritocratic selection by adding four Wales players and two Scots to his touring party.

Wales quartet Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis have made the short trip from Auckland to link up with the Lions, with Scotland duo Allan Dell and Finn Russell jetting in from Australia.

All six additions have been named on the Lions’ bench for Tuesday’s clash against the Chiefs in Hamilton, to keep the front-line stars fresh for Saturday’s first Test against New Zealand.

Head coach Gatland has been accused of devaluing the Lions shirt in deeming England’s tourists in Argentina and Ireland’s in Japan to require too much travel time to join his squad — but Laidlaw moved to downplay those frustrations.

“They are all Test match players,” Laidlaw said of the Lions’ six new additions.

“Warren’s made it no secret this was his plan all along. It’s something he did on the Australia tour in 2013. He thought it would be successful then, and it did indeed work, and now he’s gone down the same track.

“So ultimately it’s to look after the Test squad, which is so important now at this stage of the series.

“It’s about looking after everyone to make sure we get the best performance in the Test matches when they come around.”

Gatland’s Lions mentor Sir Ian McGeechan admitted the 2017 head coach’s call-ups plan was “difficult to justify”, though, as a host of former coaches and players stepped forward to criticise his decision.

England boss Eddie Jones, whose side on Saturday wrapped up a 2-0 series win in Argentina, said Lions call-ups should be decided on “merit rather than geography”.

Laidlaw was not flustered by the developments, however, reiterating that the Lions had lined up mid-tour additions as early as September.

Fly-half Russell led Scotland to a fine 24-19 win over Australia before jumping on a plane to join the up with the Lions.

And his Scotland team-mate Laidlaw believes he can now boost head coach Gatland’s Lions ranks.

“Finn is a quality operator, he’s gifted, he’s a good offloader, he reads the game, he’s excitable,” Laidlaw said.

“Given an opportunity, he’ll come in, but there’s quality players within the squad already. So to have a few more to come in and boost the squad as well is great.”