British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland says Sam Simmonds and the rest of the back-row have a “licence to express themselves” in the first mid-week match of the 2021 tour against the Sharks on Wednesday.
It will be the first start for Simmonds, who came off the bench in the opening tour match in South Africa last weekend, teaming up with Tom Curry and Josh Navidi.
Simmonds, Navidi and Curry get their turn in a revolving back-row which last weekend featured Courtney Lawes, Taulupe Faletau and Hamish Watson, with the latter putting in a try-scoring man-of-the-match performance at Ellis Park.
Now Gatland is looking to get a better idea of which players are in contention for a test starting berth, and is leaving the trio to make an impact in their own way.
“There’s a huge amount of competition in the back row and I spoke to them all last night and just said, ‘Look, you’ve got a licence from me to get your hands on the ball’,” Gatland said.
“I want them to express themselves. I said they are probably not renowned as lineout experts but you have to play to your strengths, and they are strong defenders and great ball carriers.
“It’s a different aspect to look at but it’s exciting and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they go as a trio. If you look at those players they are strong defenders, exciting ball carriers.”
Simmonds has been the revelation of the 2020/21 season, with outstanding performances in the Gallagher Premiership with Exeter Chiefs.
Gatland is hoping to utilise the athletic abilities of the back-row against the Sharks.
“These players all have pretty similar attributes, some of them are going to have to mix and match with making sure they do the graft work but the message was ‘play to your strengths’,” he added.
“We don’t want to pigeon-hole them, we want to give players the opportunity to play to their strengths – for some that’s getting their hands on the ball and using that ability.
“With those guys, the message to them is just to play your own game,” he said. “It’s a great honour and incredible excitement for them to play their first game for the Lions.
“For me it’s about not trying to put them under any pressure at all, they have got a lot of things to worry about and they’ll be a bit nervous so just go and enjoy he occasion.
The Lions squad to face the Sharks in Durban
15. Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales)
14. Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England)
13. Elliot Daly (Saracens, England)
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland)
11. Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland)
10. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales)
9. Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales)
1. Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England)
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England)
3. Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)
4. Iain Henderson – Captain (Ulster Rugby, Ireland)
5. Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales)
6. Josh Navidi (Cardiff Rugby, Wales)
7. Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England)
8. Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England)
16. Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales)
17. Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland)
18. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland)
19. Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland)
20. Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland)
21. Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland)
22. Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland)
23. Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland)