Peter O’Mahony will captain the British and Irish Lions in Saturday’s first Test against New Zealand.
The Ireland flanker has won selection ahead of tour skipper Sam Warburton, who takes a seat on the bench for the weekend’s Eden Park clash.
Saturday’s Auckland showdown now becomes the first time a tour captain has not led the Lions in an opening Test since England’s Doug Prentice missed out in 1930.
Liam Williams has been preferred to Leigh Halfpenny at full-back, while Elliot Daly starts on the left-wing in an attacking back three.
“We have picked a side based on form with a lot of players putting their hands up, especially from the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks games, and it was a lively selection meeting,” said Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
“The win against the Chiefs was also extremely important for the squad and some players played themselves into the side.
“We have continuously been strong at set-piece and have been good defensively in the last two or three outings.
“But to beat the All Blacks you have to be courageous and play some rugby – you have to score tries and I think we have picked a team capable of doing that.”
Cardiff and Wales flanker Warburton has scrambled for full match sharpness ever since suffering an ankle problem in the tour-opening 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians.
So now Munster’s ferocious back-rower O’Mahony will captain the Lions in a Test match – just three months after he was named only on the bench for Ireland’s closing Six Nations match against England.
O’Mahony has spent the last 18 months battling persistent knee problems, but has forced a resurgence since the end of the season.
That was all kick-started when Jamie Heaslip suffered a back injury in the warm-up to the March 18 clash with England in Dublin. The Aviva Stadium crowd cheered loudly when the announcer revealed O’Mahony would replace the injured Heaslip in Ireland’s starting line-up.
Joe Schmidt’s men went on to dispatch England 13-9, denying the visitors a second straight grand slam and ending their record-winning run at 18 games. And O’Mahony excelled throughout that feisty win for the Irish.
The pack that suffocated the runaway Super Rugby leaders the Crusaders 12-3 in Christchurch starts the first Test, with Warburton primed to join the fray from the bench.
Gatland hailed his starting loose-forward trio for excelling across the tour so far.
“It’s a reward for how the back row has gone,” said Gatland.
“There is a nice balance there while Peter captained the side against the Maori All Blacks and has done a good job.”
Halfpenny’s omission from the starting XV suggests that fly-half Owen Farrell – fit after a thigh injury scare – will kick at goal, though Wasps star Daly boasts a strong long-range kicking option.
Daly’s strong showing in the 34-6 win over the Chiefs on Tuesday night appears to have swayed Gatland’s mind to start him for the first Test, with Saracens-bound Williams also having impressed in Hamilton at full-back.
“Elliot has been very accurate in the way he has played and we saw some excellent attacking play from Liam on Tuesday night,” said Gatland.
“We are excited about the 15 that take the field but also the very strong and experienced bench players who will have an impact.”