Matt Dawson column: Former British and Irish Lion picks team for first Test

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The team for the first Test on a Lions tour has never been a foregone conclusion.

Particularly over the last three tours, we have gone through the process of trying to second guess head coach Warren Gatland.

My experience of him is that he has a very definite type of player in mind who needs to implement the style of play that he wants to use. There are going to be some players who have stood out that I am not sure he will go with.

Here is who I would pick for the first Test against South Africa on 24 July. You can choose your starting XV at the bottom of this page.

A graphic showing Matt Dawson's Lions XV: 15. Liam Williams, 14. Anthony Watson, 13. Elliot Daly, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. Josh Adams, 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Conor Murray, 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Alun Wyn Jones (c), 6. Tadhg Beirne, 7. Tom Curry, 8. Sam Simmonds

15. Liam Williams (Wales)

Unfortunately for Stuart Hogg, he needed to face Test-match intensity opposition and he has not. I do not think he has shown himself to be any better under pressure than Liam Williams, who has been pretty faultless.

14. Anthony Watson (England)

I think Anthony Watson is a game breaker and a line breaker in a big Test arena when the gaps are going to be small. As much as everyone is talking about Duhan van der Merwe, when I have seen him under extreme pressure and he is not able to use his bulk, I am not sure he is as much of a threat as Watson.

13. Elliot Daly (England)

I have always thought that 13 is Elliot Daly’s best position. It is a bit easy to say I feel he is a Test match animal but at that level he makes it look really comfortable and he will protect his own wingers with defence. Particularly against South Africa wing Cheslin Kolbe, you are going to need a 13 who is absolutely rock solid and full of pace.

12. Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)

I was torn between Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki. I would go with Henshaw because Aki is maybe a bit more predictable. Henshaw can still do the hard yards. I have not felt so far that the Lions are playing a hard-hitting 12, but Henshaw can do that.

Elliot Daly and Robbie Henshaw
Elliot Daly (left) and Robbie Henshaw (right) combined for the Lions’ final warm-up game

11. Josh Adams (Wales)

Josh Adams is in the try-scoring zone, with eight for the Lions so far. You can go back to previous Lions tours when you are feeding that animal who is so hungry. He is finding himself in the right place, he is finishing, his defence is good and he is great in the air. He is a thinker as well as a finisher.

10. Dan Biggar (Wales)

Dan Biggar has been the stand-out fly-half. Over the past 18 months he has matured. He has shown less petulance and more assurance. He can deliver the run-pass-kick game but strategically he seems a bit sharper than Owen Farrell. I do not think Gatland will go with newcomer Marcus Smith at 10, he might put Smith on the bench if he needs to ramp it up. We have all seen plenty of Marcus to know he can do that.

9. Conor Murray (Ireland)

Ali Price has played really well and has embraced threatening for a Test spot. He will be at Conor Murray’s heels which will be good for Murray. When Murray has been second choice is often when we have seen him play best for the Lions but he has got credit in the bank. The way that Ali Price is playing, Conor is going to know that he has to up his game.

1. Mako Vunipola (England)

There needs to be a bit of balance in the forward pack around speed of ball and fitness. Being able to pick and go as well as playing first receiver and having it out the back. Mako Vunipola has got those capabilities. With the rest of the players around him he will be good enough at set-piece. It would depend who they put on the bench to have the cover just in case it does not go well up front.

2. Luke Cowan-Dickie (England)

I think Luke Cowan-Dickie has been the stand-out hooker in England. Everybody saw how England got beaten up in the World Cup final against South Africa and one of the reasons is that they did not have an edge up front. I think someone like Cowan-Dickie has an edge about him. He is the type of player who the opposition would think they need to do something serious about. He is a real threat.

Luke Cowan-Dickie scores a try
Luke Cowan-Dickie scored a try and won player of the match in Saturday’s win against the Stormers

3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)

You have to have a good set-piece and parity at a minimum in this area is the priority. Because of what he offers there, I do not see anyone touching Tadhg Furlong at tight-head.

4. Maro Itoje (England)

I would be surprised if Maro has not analysed himself around ill-discipline, which he can do something about. You cannot neglect how he can change a game with his intensity, his charge-downs and his physicality. He could easily be the talisman up front for the Lions.

5. Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales)

Alun Wyn Jones should be captain. He came on against the Stormers after his swift recovery from injury and went straight back into it. He didn’t shirk. He has got all the experience, the communication with the referee and the game management. It will give the team a huge boost having him in the squad. You cannot underestimate the confidence that bringing back a player like him gives to the rest of the squad.

Alun Wyn Jones' arm is held by a doctor
Alun Wyn Jones has made a stunning return after dislocating his shoulder on 26 June

6. Tadhg Beirne (Ireland)

Like Cowan-Dickie, Tadhg Beirne has the edge. He is an absolute handful, breaking tackles and being a nuisance in defence. He is exceptional over the ball and around mauls, stopping the big guys. Then he has the offload game and skills to break the line.

7. Tom Curry (England)

Tom Curry is probably the world’s best seven at the moment. He has probably been inked in the team for most of the year and Gatland will be chuffed to bits that he has come through fit.

8. Sam Simmonds (England)

To have a back row like Sam Simmonds who is such a threat, who can step and score and pass and link as well as compete out wide gives you a completely different dimension. Gatland has given him loads of run-outs. I feel that he has wanted to give him a full examination to see if he could be his diamond in the rough.

Replacements

How can you not have Owen Farrell on the bench? He gives you cover in the midfield, at 10 and kicking so I think he has to be involved with the squad. I think Ali Price will be there too.

One area where the South Africa A were short when they beat the Lions on Wednesday was fitness. They were hanging in there in the last 20 minutes.

With Price and Farrell on the bench and Watson and Daly being able to go to full-back or Daly can go on the wing, you could have six forward replacements and run South Africa ragged.

You can pick your starting XV for the first Test below. The BBC Sport readers’ team will be revealed on the website on Thursday.

Can’t see this selector? Visit this page.

Matt Dawson was speaking to BBC Sport’s Becky Grey.

Read more at www.bbc.co.uk

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