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Sunday, 21 October, 2018

4-1 George a gorgeous price to make first Test of tough tour

English hooker could force his way into Gatland's plans

Hooker Jamie George has strong claims for a Test start
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The waiting is finally over. It's four long years since the British & Irish Lions roared to victory over Australia in 2013 the three-and-a-half weeks between the squad landing in New Zealand and running out for the first Test against the All Blacks will fly by for supporters.

But for the players, three weeks is a long time on a Lions tour.

Squad members can bolt from the blue to stake a Test claim, others will fail to grasp the nettle or see their hopes dashed by injury, and every selection decision will come under intense scrutiny.

The Lions start on Saturday against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, a team of semi-professionals from below Super Rugby level, and they are 35-point handicap favourites.

They then face all five New Zealand Super Rugby sides, the Maori All Blacks and three showdowns with the world champions, with barely time to catch breath between games.

Given the twists and turns the tour can take trying to select a Test line-up before a ball has been kicked may seem a pointless task. But bookmakers have a pretty solid idea of what that team will be, with players at odds-on for most positions, and some of those picks are worth challenging.

BoyleSports, Hills and Sky Bet are offering prices on who will wear each shirt for the first Test in Auckland, going for a front row of Mako Vunipola, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong and a second row of Alun-Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje, with CJ Stander, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau forming the back row.

Irish pair Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are the favourites to start in the half-back positions, with Owen Farrell and Jonathan Davies in midfield, George North and either Liam Williams or Anthony Watson on the wings, and Stuart Hogg at full-back.

Where are the weak links? One could be hooker Best, who has risen to the Ireland captaincy and led them to victory over the All Blacks but is a shaky favourite for the Test role at 5-4.

He wasn't included in Warren Gatland's initial squad for 2013 and although he captained the team on that tour once called up as a replacement for Dylan Hartley, that was in the 14-12 defeat to the Brumbies.

Best's line-out throwing has come into question, although the line-out was a key element in that Ireland victory over New Zealand, and this is a position where the Lions don't boast great depth.

Ken Owens is Gatland's regular starter and played all three Tests for Wales in New Zealand last summer as well as all five Six Nations matches this year. But he has not played since the beginning of May with an ankle problem and at the prices it could be worth chancing Saracens' hooker Jamie George.

He is clearly on Gatland's radar having been selected ahead of England skipper Hartley and is the kind of mobile front-row player who could shine at this level.

George's Saracens team-mate Owen Farrell was bench back-up to Jonathan Sexton for the 2013 series but the betting suggests Gatland will follow England coach Eddie Jones's tactic of playing Farrell at 12.

That may well be on his mind as Farrell has made huge advances in his game over the last four years. But Sexton and Farrell look a lightweight combination at ten and 12 and against the All Blacks a more robust midfield may be the formula. Ireland's Robbie Henshaw could fit the bill and is a decent price at 5-2.

Whoever makes the final cut faces a huge task as the All Blacks are 1-4 to win the three-match series and 10-11 for a clean sweep. But who knows, a lot can happen in three weeks.

J George to wear number two shirt in first Test
1pt 4-1 Hills, Sky Bet
R Henshaw to wear number 12 shirt in first Test
1pt 5-2 Sky Bet

Bookmakers have a solid idea of what that team will be, with players at odds-on for most positions, and some of those picks are worth challenging
E.W. Terms
Sky bet