North passed fit for Lions and first Test could be won or lost on wing
With Tommy Bowe, Manu Tuilagi and Jamie Roberts all injured, competition for places in the Lions’ first Test with Australia was lessened slightly, but, it is Warren Gatland’s decisions on the wings that could have the biggest bearing on the Brisbane result.
George North being passed fit is a major plus for Gatland after he tore a hamstring in an earlier tour game and he is clearly the Lions’ biggest wing asset.
He has made more metres than any other Lions player throughout the tour to date by some margin and his battle with Australia’s Israel Forau is the most anticipated of the match.
Forau may be making his test debut for the Wallabies, but his pace, ball carrying and ability to offload all make him significantly dangerous.
With kicking not his strongest asset, the key for the Lions may be to get the ball in behind him or bombard him with high kicks to take the chance to land some heavy tackles.
As decisive as this battle could be, it is down the other flank where the game could be won or lost, with Alex Cuthbert winning the nod over Simon Zebo and Sean Maitland.
Cuthbert had his troubles at times with Luke Morahan earlier in the tour in the victory over the Queensland Reds and Digby Ioane is likely to present an even sterner examination, especially with his speed and twinkle-toe footwork.
Although maybe a more defensive selection, Zebo is arguably better defensively and would seem least likely to get exposed by Ioane.
However, the Irish winger has not even made the bench, despite having the ability to provide more spark than Maitland, which is a fate that has also surprisingly been suffered by Toby Faletau, who has made the most carries by a Lions player on tour thus far.
Yet, the bench does look to have some impact players present that could take advantage of a faltering Aussie defence in the latter stages.
Alex Corbisiero’s inclusion at loosehead may be the biggest surprise by Gatland, but he is the more solid option in the scrum than Mako Vunipola, who can now come on as a replacement and utilise his greater running and handling skills.
Dan Coles is in the same boat at tighthead, where he can replace Adam Jones in a big impact area, while Ben Youngs is faster than Mike Phillips around the fringes and this could trouble tiring Aussie legs.
The Lions are 4/6 to win the first Test, with Australia the underdogs at home at 11/8.
Lions team: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Tom Croft, Sam Warburton (capt), Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Richard Hibbard, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Dan Lydiate, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Sean Maitland.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.