British and Irish Lions back Warren Gatland over '˜geographical' call-ups

Greig Laidlaw has defended Warren Gatland's decision to draft in six new players to the British and Irish Lions squad.

British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland and Rory Best during a press conference at the Hamilton Novotel. (Picture: David Davies/PA Wire)

Gatland came under fire for appearing to prioritise geographic proximity over meritocratic selection by adding four Wales players and two Scots to his touring party.

Wales quartet Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis have made the short trip from Auckland to link up with the Lions, with Scotland duo Allan Dell and Finn Russell jetting in from Australia.

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All six additions have been named on the Lions’ bench for tomorrow’s game against the Chiefs in Hamilton, to keep the front-line stars fresh for Saturday’s first Test against New Zealand.

British and Irish Lions' Tomas Francis during the training session at Beetham Park, Hamilton. (Picture:David Davies/PA)

Head coach Gatland has been accused of devaluing the Lions shirt in deeming England’s tourists in Argentina and Ireland’s in Japan to require too much travel time to join his squad – but Laidlaw moved to downplay those frustrations.

“They are all Test match players,” said Laidlaw of the Lions’ six new additions. “Warren’s made it no secret this was his plan all along. It’s something he did on the Australia tour in 2013. He thought it would be successful then, and it did indeed work, and now he’s gone down the same track.

“So ultimately it’s to look after the Test squad, which is so important now at this stage of the series.

“It’s about looking after everyone to make sure we get the best performance in the Test matches when they come around.”

British and Irish Lions' Tomas Francis during the training session at Beetham Park, Hamilton. (Picture:David Davies/PA)

Gatland’s Lions mentor Sir Ian McGeechan admitted the 2017 head coach’s call-ups plan was “difficult to justify”, though, as a host of former coaches and players stepped forward to criticise his decision.

England boss Eddie Jones, whose side on Saturday wrapped up a 2-0 series win in Argentina, said Lions call-ups should be decided on “merit rather than geography”.

Laidlaw was not flustered by the developments, however, reiterating that the Lions had lined up mid-tour additions as early as September.

Fly-half Russell led Scotland to a fine 24-19 win in Australia before jumping on a plane to join the up with the Lions.

And his Scotland team-mate Laidlaw believes he can now boost head coach Gatland’s Lions ranks.

“Finn is a quality operator, he’s gifted, he’s a good offloader, he reads the game, he’s excitable,” said Laidlaw.

“Given an opportunity, he’ll come in, but there’s quality players within the squad already. So to have a few more to come in and boost the squad as well is great.”

Ahead of Saturday’s mouthwatering first Test, Gatland has insisted that captain Sam Warburton remains under pressure to force his way into the Lions’ line-up. Tour skipper Warburton is fit but has been left out of the Lions’ 23 for the Chiefs clash, raising hopes for the Wales flanker to squeeze into the Test squad after ankle trouble.

But head coach Gatland has again reiterated his huge admiration for the back-row unit of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau, that helped the Lions “squeeze the life” out of the Maori in Saturday’s 32-10 triumph.

Warburton continues to chase full match sharpness, and could well take a seat on the bench for Saturday’s first All Blacks Test in Auckland.

“There’s no doubt that there’s some pressure on certain players and certain combinations have gone well,” said Gatland, when quizzed on Warburton’s situation.

“A lot of those guys who played against the Crusaders did exceptionally well, and in the performance against the Maori, we dominated territory and possession, and we squeezed the life out them, an unbelievably talented backline that just went nowhere.

“For Sam, look, we were hoping he was going to be part of the 23 against the Crusaders. Unfortunately he rolled his ankle a little bit so hadn’t recovered in time.

“So there will be some tough debates and discussions to have on the final make-up of what the back-row is going to be for Saturday.”

Gatland claimed he was “always confident” Owen Farrell would be fit for the first Test, despite the England fly-half still battling a thigh issue. Leigh Halfpenny must complete the head-injury protocols to start at full-back against New Zealand in Auckland on Saturday.

Lions report: Page 4