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Midweekers catch the eye ahead of selection

The midweek boys have done their job, swatting aside the Melbourne Rebels comfortably, keeping the Lions momentum on the rise and atoning for that Brumbies defeat.

There were some outstanding performances and with Paul O’Connell out of the tour and Alex Corbisiero out of at least the second Test there were places up for grabs.

Not only that but Warren Gatland has said that the coaching team realise that had they lost they would have discussed changes and that one slip of the boot should not make any difference to that.

Geoff Parling has already been announced as Paul O’Connell’s replacement but Richie Gray did himself no harm in his challenge to take Parling’s seat on the bench, while Sean O’Brien and Dan Lydiate both stated their cases for inclusion in the back row very strongly.

Toby Faletau was again magnificent, however Jamie Heaslip looks to be sewn into the Test shirt. Faletau seems likely to go down as one of the most unfortunate men in the squad, his chances of being on the bench are also limited given the need for cover on the flanks. He is certainly going to be regarded as one of the great midweek men though.

The front row repaired some of the damage from the end of the First Test, though neither Hibbard nor Cole will be elevated to Test starters. One who may though is Ryan Grant. Mako Vunipola’s inexperience at the end on Saturday will have been noted and it may be that they choose to replace Corbisiero with Grant and again use Vunipola as an impact man.

In the backs Ben Youngs impressed as a substitute, after Mike Phillips’ off colour display in the 1st Test the energetic Youngs must be knocking hard on the door.

Most impressive of all though was Owen Farrell, the young Englishman has picked up a reputation for sitting deep and playing a ‘stodgy’ style of rugby but yesterday he played like a new man.

Farrell was taking the ball flat, delaying his passes and looking for space, he even took a quick tap penalty in his own half and tried a Quade Cooper style banana kick in the opposition 22. His performance will not get him into the starting XV but what it does do is calm the nerves should Sexton come off, his display demonstrated that he can play the way the Lions want him to.

Outside Farrell Manu Tuilagi made his comeback after his stinger injury; the big centre looked solid if unspectacular but probably did not do enough to force out Jonathan Davies. He could find himself on the bench though, depending on what the Lions choose to do with their wings and how much they trust the fitness of North and Bowe.

Speaking of wings, both Simon Zebo and Sean Maitland had excellent games, Zebo was full of surprises and trickery whilst Maitland demonstrated that of all the Lions wings, except possibly Bowe, he is the most rounded footballer of the lot.

The likelihood is though that Warren Gatland and his coaching staff will probably only make one change, bar the two enforced injury changes, particularly as it seems that Jamie Roberts will not make it.

That change is likely to be on the wing where the fit again Tommy Bowe is expected to replace Alex Cuthbert, despite Cuthbert scoring an excellent try at the weekend.

Bowe is clearly trusted by the management and was is superb form before he broke his hand, whilst it is tough on Cuthbert it is hard to argue that Bowe is not the more rounded winger, though with both North and Bowe returning from injury and probably less than 100% fit it would be no surprise to see Cuthbert on the bench.

The bench is where the biggest shake up is likely to be, if Vunipola starts at loosehead then Grant will come onto the bench, while there is a guaranteed change at second row with Parling starting. There has been talk of naming two back rowers on the bench with Croft covering the second row but it seems more likely that a second row will get the call.

Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau are pushing Dan Lydiate hard for his spot on the bench, though Lydaite is also pushing Croft hard for his spot in the starting team; such is the competition in the back row.

Owen Farrell has safely secured his bench spot, while Ben Youngs will probably start as the replacement scrum half again. There are strong calls for him to replace Mike Phillips as the starting scrum half but it would be a surprise to see the management change direction at this stage.

The final spot on the bench is wide open though, it could go to any one of Tuilagi, Cuthbert (or Bowe if Cuthbert starts), Hogg, Maitland, Zebo or Kearney it depends on the direction the management want to take. The assumption must be though that it is a man who can cover the back three as both Farrell and North can cover the centres.

While there may not be many changes, those that there will be demonstrate exactly why those not selected for the First Test, or for this, must keep driving in the same direction – you just never know what is going to happen. It is probably not unfair to suggest that Ryan Grant probably thought his chances of Test selection were gone after he was chosen to play against the Brumbies, yet he is certain to be involved in some capacity on Saturday.

Probable Lions XV

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Tommy Bowe 13. Brian O’Driscoll 12. Jonathan Davies 11. George North 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Mike Phillips; 1. Mako Vunipola 2. Tom Youngs 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun Wyn Jones 5. Geoff Parling 6. Tom Croft 7. Sam Warburton (c) 8. Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard 17. Ryan Grant 18. Dan Cole 19. Richie Gray 20. Dan Lydiate 21. Ben Youngs 22. Owen Farrell 23. Alex Cuthbert.

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