British and Irish Lions: Conor Murray or Ali Price? Alun Wyn Jones? - The big calls facing Warren Gatland ahead of South Africa Test

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Luke Cowan-Dickie is set to start (Getty Images)
Luke Cowan-Dickie is set to start (Getty Images)

Tricky decisions await Warren Gatland and his coaching team across the Lions team for Saturday’s crucial First Test against South Africa.

To back Conor Murray’s experience and pedigree at scrum-half, or to follow the form guide with Ali Price? Has Alun Wyn Jones done enough to start?

How to balance the midfield? Six-two or five-three on the bench?

The most fiercely-contested position is at hooker, where Gatland has a problem of plenty. All three selected for the tour (Ireland Ronan’s Kelleher has since been called up, but has not played) are credible candidates to start: the vastly-experienced Welshman Ken Owens and the English duo Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

This Saturday, one will be desperately unlucky to play no part. It would not be surprising if all three get game-time across the Tests. Cowan-Dickie is the form player, underlining that with a superb 48-minute, try-scoring stint against the Stormers on Saturday.

When asked after the game who impressed him, Cowan-Dickie was the first name Gatland mentioned. But when the touring party was named two months ago, it felt as if the best the Cornishman could hope for come Test time was a spot on the bench to change games in the final quarter.

His explosive carrying and work at the breakdown make him mighty effective when the game breaks up, and his two rivals arrived with a touch more pedigree. It is a situation not dissimilar to that of Price, who has been the best scrum-half on tour despite appearing the least likely to start when the squad was named.

Owens arrived as the favourite. He was outstanding in Wales’s Six Nations triumph and has a superb all-round game. When skipper Jones went down injured in the warm-up against Japan, he led the team for the remainder of that game and was a candidate to replace him as tour captain.

He has done little wrong so far in South Africa. Nor has George, who has an abundance of experience, too. Three of his 62 Test caps came on the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand, where he started all three Tests and stayed on the field deep into the second half every time.

Over the last year, George has struggled a touch for form, with England playing poorly and Saracens in the Championship. But Gatland is a big fan, handing him the captaincy against the Sharks and even name-checking him as a potential tour captain months ago.

He brings lineout stability and lovely hands around the park. It might be, though, that against the brazenly physical Springboks, something a little more rugged is required from the start.

Cowan-Dickie offers that, with George able to provide either game-breaking touches or set-piece solidity in the second half. If Gatland follows that blueprint, it would be extremely tough on Owens.

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