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Sean Maitland emerges as a Test contender

Scotland’s Sean Maitland has emerged as an unlikely Test match contender for the British and Irish Lions after an impressive showing on Tuesday saw him named in the squad to face the New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday.

In the early stages of the tour Tommy Bowe emerged as the favourite to join likely starter George North on the wing. However a broken hand sustained against Queensland Reds last weekend saw him ruled out until at least the second Test, leaving the right wing berth available.

Alex Cuthbert has been the favourite of many to start in Bowe’s place, however such was the torrid time he was given against the Queensland Reds winger Luke Morahan last week, that concerns have emerged about his defence.

If Warren Gatland does decide that Cuthbert is a risk in defence, then Maitland and Simon Zebo, who will be making his first appearance of the tour on Saturday after touching down in Australia on Tuesday evening. are the only other genuine wingers available, assuming North starts on the left.

The other option available to Gatland is to move either Leigh Halfpenny or Stuart Hogg to the wing, however that would be something of a risk given that neither has spent any real time there this tour.

It leaves Maitland in pole position should Gatland decide not to go with Cuthbert, and the fact that Maitland has been selected for Saturday having also played the full eighty minutes on Tuesday also weighs in his favour as he will be highly unlikely to play this Tuesday coming as well. That he had an excellent game on Tuesday, despite playing out of position at full-back in the first half, will have helped him enormously.

The likelihood is that Gatland will try to avoid doubling up any players on Tuesday and Saturday next week, and will almost certainly avoid playing anyone in all three games (including this Saturday), which is why selection for this Saturday’s game is an excellent indicator of the coaching teams thinking in terms of Test selection.

One man who now looks like a certainty for Test involvement is Jamie Heaslip. The Leinsterman is doubling up after starting on Tuesday as well, and given that there are only two number eights on tour, himself and Toby Faletau, it seems likely that Faletau will start in midweek, unless Gatland decides to experiment with Sean O’Brien there.

His back row companions Tom Croft and Sam Warburton must also now be considered the favourites to start the 1st Test, however Gatland has admitted that this is one area that has given him more headaches than any other. With O’Brien, Tipuric and Faletau the likely starters on Tuesday though, these three will be confident, in private, of their chances.

One player who seems highly unlikely to be selected though is Rob Kearney. The Irish full back is on the bench on Saturday and it will be his first involvement on the tour so far after a hamstring injury has prevented him appearing to date.

The likelihood is that he will get half an hour on Saturday and will start on Tuesday meaning that selection for the Tests is unlikely. It is a sign of how highly the coaching staff rate him that even though he is not available for full selection until the week of the first Test that they have been prepared to keep him on tour.

The conventional belief at this stage though is that around half the team selected for Saturday is expected to be in the starting line up for the 1st Test, with a further five or six likely to be involved either from the start or on the bench.

Only Simon Zebo and Jonathan Davies would be described as ‘unlikely’ to be in the matchday 23 next week at this stage.

Regardless, we are about to enter the most exciting part of any Lions tour – Test week. Expect the intensity to jump up a notch, expect the crowds to become louder and, importantly, for the number of red shirts to begin to multiply.

If ever there was a week to show off your best rugby to the coaches, this is it.

British & Irish Lions XV v New South Wales Waratahs:

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Sean Maitland 13. Jonathan Davies 12. Jamie Roberts 11. Simon Zebo 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Mike Phillips; 1 Mako Vunipola 2. Tom Youngs 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun Wyn Jones 5. Paul O’Connell 6. Tom Croft 7. Sam Warburton 8. Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard 17. Alex Corbisiero 18. Dan Cole 19. Geoff Parling 20. Dan Lydiate 21. Ben Youngs 22. Owen Farrell 23. Rob Kearney.

Fifteen Rugby’s Predicted British & Irish Lions XV for the 1st Test:

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Sean Maitland 13. Brian O’Driscoll 12. Jamie Roberts 11. George North 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Mike Phillips; 1. Mako Vunipola 2. Tom Youngs 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun Wyn Jones 5. Paul O’Connell 6. Tom Croft 7. Sam Warburton 8. Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard 17. Alex Corbisiero 18. Dan Cole 19. Geoff Parling 20. Sean O’Brien 21. Ben Youngs 22. Owen Farrell 23. Manu Tuilagi/Stuart Hogg/Rob Kearney (if he plays well on Saturday & Tuesday).

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