Shocks! Joy! Jubilation! As Warren Gatland and his coaching staff announced this year’s Lions team, the immediate future of many of the northern hemisphere’s rugby elite was confirmed, and for many, it was a dream dashed. With a larger than expected squad of forty-one, many have questioned the nationality balance across the board, with only two Scots featuring alongside twelve Welshman, who as a team underperformed at the Six Nations. Personally, although I am surprised neither of the Gray brothers made the squad, I do not think two Scots is fundamentally wrong and despite Austin Healey’s belief in the power of rugby politics, it does seem that Gatland and his coaches have chosen largely on merit.
I wrote two blogs either side of the Six Nations concerning the composition of Gatland’s squad and its worth addressing the consistencies and the anomalies. At full back, Gatland has opted for Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams. This position was always going to be tightly fought by the above three and Rob Kearney and Mike Brown. Gatland has never been a fan of Brown with his lack of a scything counter-attacking ability, whereas Kearney sustained an injury during the tournament and has failed to hit the heights of previous years. The Irishman was on my squad list, but I can easily see why he has been left out. On the wing there are a glut of Englishmen, more than expected. In Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly, Gatland has an axis of players who know how to play together and complement each other with their skill sets. For Nowell to make the squad ahead of Simon Zebo talks to the latter’s poor Six Nations and Nowell’s work rate, if not his scoring record. Tommy Seymour and George North were always close to selection and if I had anticipated that Gatland would select five wingers Seymour would have made my team, but North is the leading candidate for the test squad with his all-round game and close relationship with Gatland putting him in pole position.
The Centre position did throw up a couple of surprises. I believed that Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne were going to be selected, even though it did appear that Joseph had lost his spot according to the supposed omniscience of social media. I am particularly excited though by Payne’s inclusion. Not only is he a native Kiwi and knows the terrain, but has experience of beating the All Blacks and has that wonderful Antipodean quality of having more time on the ball than others twice as quick. His is a fitting inclusion. The other two are shock choices. Ben Te’o is an effective player and proved his worth as an impact sub during the Six Nations, but he is a relative novice on the international rugby stage and did not appear to be in Gatland’s thinking. The other surprise selection is Jonathan Davies. Gatland is a big fan of the Scarlets’ centre and despite his match-altering error in the loss to England in February, he offers experience in attack and defence, but the cutting edge appears to have been blunted in the last couple of years. It would be a surprise if he made the test team.
At fly-half, Owen Farrell, Jonny Sexton and Dan Biggar were unsurprisingly selected. This appeared a likelihood from last year’s autumn internationals and Biggar confirmed his big-match credentials against England when he was desperately unfortunate to be on the losing team. For Finn Russell and George Ford, they were unable to differentiate themselves from their more heralded colleagues and Russell’s struggles against England at Twickenham condemned him to touring Oceania rather than the land of the long white cloud.
At scrum-half, there wasn’t much surprise in the selection of Connor Murray and Rhys Webb, although Ben Youngs snuck in as the final choice. Danny Care would always have been classed as a bolter were he to make the team ahead of his England colleague, but with former and current England coaches in Steve Borthwick, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell part of the touring party, it is to be hoped that they recognise the benefits of selecting one over the other.
For the forward pack, Gatland has chosen to overlook Jamie Heaslip, who suffered an injury in the Six Nations and has failed to replicate his form earlier in his career in favour of Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola. Although the latter missed much of the Six Nations, at his best he is one of the world’s best back-row forwards and is devastating when running into contact and close to the line. I believed that Faletau would miss out due to his recent injury record and the impressive form of Ross Moriarty that denied him a permanent spot in the Wales team, but Gatland has obviously seen enough in his domestic form for Bath and knows that he will be a very capable squad player.
At flank, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Ross Moriarty have all been selected. I am slightly surprised by O’Mahony and Moriarty and think it unlikely they will play in the test team, but O’Mahony proved against England that he is a warrior who is unrelenting in the face the opposition and Moriarty was arguably the in-form British Number Eight during the tournament. The Second Row is where many of the ruptions in the media have occurred. Joe Launchbury, as pointed out by Wasps’ Twitter account, gained two Man-of-the-Match awards during the Six Nations and was on the list for player of the tournament. He is hugely unfortunate, but the position is such an area of strength for England at the present that three of the five selected wear the Red Rose. Launchbury has to be first reserve in the case of injury or suspension. I am also slightly surprised to see Iain Henderson selected in the place of Jonny Gray, whose domestic form I felt would have been enough to grant him a place on the plane.
In the front-row are a few encouraging surprises. Samson Lee has been left out following an ineffectual Six Nations and the number of Englishmen reflects Gatland’s desire for a competitive scrummaging platform. Kyle Sinckler and Ken Owens are the major surprises. Even though Owens won plaudits for his Six Nations performances, he was part of a losing team and could easily have been overlooked in favour of Dylan Hartley; whilst it seems that Sean Cronin has been overlooked altogether. In his place though is Jamie George, who offers real forward dynamism and is an outside shout for the test team.
Ultimately, I believe Gatland and his coaching staff have made more than they have missed. They weren’t blessed for choices at tighthead and on the wing and many will point to Launchbury’s omission, but the purpose of the tour is to win, not for national parity in player selection. Gatland was quite right to choose on merit irrespective of nationality, and it is heartening to see that his rugby bosses have supported him rather than imposing restrictions in the name of ‘balance’. Can Scotland feel themselves hard done by? Yes. But let’s not kid ourselves, even though Scotland had an impressive Six Nations, they were obliterated by England in London and their strengths lay in their team work and Huw Jones (who’s injured and should have been on the tour). As for Hamish Watson, Grieg Laidlaw and the Grays, they did not impress enough against established quality in the form of Ben Youngs, Taulupe Faletau and Alun Wyn Jones who pipped them to positions in the squad.
Is this the strongest Lions squad in a generation? Probably not, I still believe the 2005 squad was stronger, but suffered for its bloated numbers and the age of many of its stars. The 2009 tour was an opportunity missed, but was undermined by the large number of injuries and withdrawals of key players (such as Brian O’Driscoll, Halfpenny and Adam Jones). The 2013 squad was a good mix of experience and youth, and benefitted for the relative weakness of the Australian team, but also featured a core of in-form players such as North, Halfpenny and Alex Corbisiero.