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Lawrence on the Lions: The tour so far

By Lawrence Dallagio
QBE ambassador

Saturday's game against the Maori All Blacks is widely viewed as the unofficial fourth Test, but the team picked by Warren Gatland and his coaching staff is not the Test side. Not yet anyway, because there might be changes.

Owen Farrell, withdrawn from the bench due to injury, has been an integral part of the tour and is playing well. He will be involved in some way in the Tests and they understandably do not want to take any chances with his fitness. He has a little strain in his quad and they want to keep him fit. It is not like he is short of match fitness and hasn't played a lot of rugby in the last few weeks!

Interestingly I see Peter O'Mahony has been selected as captain for Saturday. His excellent performance in Christchurch has obviously not been ignored by the coaching staff. Plus the back row combination again with Sean O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau has a good look to it, no doubt about that. The likes of Justin Tipuric and CJ Stander however still might force their way in.

Maro Itoje and George Kruis back together in the second row is a very dangerous combination as well, when you consider how much those two have played together for Saracens and England.

It is worth noting that Alun Wyn Jones has played a lot of rugby on the tour, putting in a big shift on Tuesday. The second row partnership will be two from those three, with who ends up on the bench still up for debate really. It is such an area of strength that other players who have been very good like Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes are probably not even going to make it into the Test squad.

But, this is only the first Test coming up. It is going to be a very physical series and there will be opportunities on both sides given their squads will be tested to the limit.

Those players selected for the game in Rotorua will be well aware of the opportunity to nail down their Test spot. If the Lions play well and win, it makes changes unlikely. That said, if they do not perform and lose to the Maoris, then the opposite is inevitable; you almost get forced into making changes.

Warren Gatland and his coaches have been fair to their principles of giving everybody a run. For some it has worked out, and for others not quite as well as they hoped.

You have to win games though. If you want to be in the Test team, you need to be in a winning team. Against a very proud Maori team it is going to be a very physical match, and it is going to take a lot out of the Lions. I'm not sure about the timing of the fixture but it is how New Zealand wanted it obviously. It could have come earlier on, but that is just my preference. And the game really matters having lost their winning record against the Highlanders.

Both the Blues game and the Highlanders game, had the Lions team selected played together for a bit longer then they probably would have had that continuity and confidence to shut those games out.

You can understand why there have been questions about the strength in depth of the squad off the back of those results. However, the Lions were in winning positions in those matches with minutes to go. What they have not been able to in midweek is close out those positions.

In hindsight, this squad frankly should have won all four games, so I am not overly concerned, even though New Zealand now have the bragging rights. If the Lions lose the Test series, then the overall record will not look great. But if they win the Test series, then not many people this side of the equator will remember what happened before that.

Facing another dangerous set of backs, the coaches' tactical messages will be similar to the game against the Crusaders. The Lions defence on the whole has been pretty strong to date, keeping scoring down against teams who normally do not have any problem scoring against other sides.

The foundations - defence, set-piece - will be tested again. But importantly in these games the Lions need to dominate the breakdown, throw bodies in there with the right ferocity and with the right numbers, to not give the Maori anything easily.

That is where you want to see the Lions come out of the blocks, because those areas are where you win Test matches.

This as I said earlier is always know as the unofficial fourth Test, and if the Lions play with the quality and execution required at Test level, then they should come out and win it. That is why I am expecting them to win.