Rowntree; Mid-week players pressing for Lions Test spots

 Graham Rowntree (Getty)
Graham Rowntree (Getty)

Wellington - British and Irish Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree says performances by several players in the mid-week win over the Chiefs has made it more difficult to select the Test squad to face New Zealand in Saturday's first Test at Eden Park. 

Asked on Wednesday whether any players who took part in the 34-6 win over the Chiefs had played themselves into the test line-up the previous night, Rowntree said "potentially." 

"It's going to be even tougher now," Rowntree said. "We'll meet later on today as coaches and there are a few guys who've put their hands up. 

"That won't be ignored, it will be taken into consideration and we've got a real challenge. The quality of this squad is such that it was always going to be a big debate, but last night quite a few of them put their hands up." 

Rowntree said whatever line-up the Lions decide on, which will likely be revealed to players on Wednesday and to the public on Thursday, he is confident of the tourists' ability to cope with the high-tempo style of the All Blacks. 

The Lions have adopted a relatively conservative style on tour, focusing on strong set pieces, accurate kicking and a smothering rush defence. They showed sustained attacking flair for the first time on tour in their four-tries-to-nil win over the under-strength Chiefs. 

Rowntree said the Lions had prepared in training to cope with the New Zealand's pace and fitness. 

"We've trained hard and fast, which you have to play the All Blacks," he said. "The ball is on the field for a long time, it's a quick game and we've trained them exceptionally hard. 

"Those guys last night would quite easily back up again at the weekend if we wanted them to." 

Rowntree, who is responsible for the Lions' scrum, said the world champion All Blacks were the best team in the world at set pieces, along with most other areas of their game. 

"They (All Blacks) have proved that over two World Cups; a very efficient, excellent lineout defence particularly with Kieran Read in the mix," he said. "Scrum, my department, they've been leading the charge for quite a long time now. 

"They've been exceptionally well coached by Mike Cron. It's an honest, efficient forward pack." 

Rowntree said the Lions had developed well throughout the tour, improving steadily through six matches to date. He believes they are now ready to face New Zealand. 

"Luckily we've had some good challenges over the last few weeks and I'm really happy with how the boys have adapted," he said. "You saw the challenges we had at scrum time in Otago on a couple of occasions and against the Crusaders as well, against the All Blacks' front five basically. 

"But the guys have learned and are adapting well. Those games, those challenges are what we need to learn from and be able to step up for this pack at the weekend, which is the best in the world." 

The Lions and All Blacks squads each face questions about the fitness of their captains. 

Lions tour captain Sam Warburton has been struggling in his comeback from a knee injury and may concede the test captaincy to Ireland's Peter O'Mahony, while All Blacks captain Kieran Read will return after an almost two-month layoff with a broken thumb. 

Read was unable to play in the All Blacks' warm-up match against Samoa last Friday and has had only a handful of Super Rugby matches this season. New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster says Read is determined to play on Saturday and is confident of being match fit. 

"He's desperate to play and he's our leader," Foster said. "The diagnosis has always been that he was due back to play this game. 

"We're pretty satisfied. He had his first real solid hit out with contact (on Tuesday) and hopefully he comes through that really well and it becomes a reasonably easy decision."

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