So, the Lions have been picked and soon they will be sent. But why these 41 and how much bang has Warren Gatland got for his buck? Geraint Powell checks all the coins in Gatland’s pocket and ponders whether it all adds up.
The British & Irish Lions squad for the summer tour of New Zealand has been announced, finally ending months of increasingly silly speculation about the composition of the squad in the media.
The Lions seem to have become one major exercise in clickbait, making selections on the basis of individual performance in every match without reference to the All Blacks and a game plan.
The Lions are a concept almost designed to fail. For it is an exercise in throwing together players, from four very different rugby countries once every four years. The brutally long tours of old are now replaced by a truncated tour that creates its own problems.
There is little preparation time whatsoever, such is the global calendar. The first match against an NZ Provincial team is the Saturday after the domestic finals of the English Aviva Premiership and the Celtic Pro12.
As if beating New Zealand is not difficult enough in itself – the 1971 Lions, under the visionary coach Carwyn James, being the only winning Lions squad down there – this will be the first time that the Lions will have to face the five Super Rugby regional franchises. Even Sir Clive Woodward’s woeful 2005 Lions, who were whitewashed 3-0 by the All Blacks in the actual Test series, were spared this Super Rugby regional franchises softening up process.
Two of the three Test matches will be played at Eden Park in Auckland, with Christchurch being without a major stadium since the 2011 earthquake that severely damaged Lancaster Park, and where the All Blacks last lost a Test match in 1994 in the amateur era.
With no Test matches being played on the South Island, the matches against the Crusaders and the Highlanders are likely to be particularly tense.
Perhaps recognising the potential attritional carnage in playing four of the Super Rugby regional franchises and the NZ Maori before the 1st Test, Warren Gatland has gone heavy with an otherwise bloated 41 man squad comprised of 16 Englishmen, 12 Welshmen, 11 Irishmen, and just 2 Scots.
Sam Warburton will again be the Lions tour captain, to the surprise of few close observers. Not just because of his personal rapport with coach Gatland, but because he will be a trusted safe pair of hands in relation to both the media and leading by example through his personal conduct.
As a Kiwi, Gatland will be all too aware that the NZ media will be looking to unsettle the Lions from day one. They will be looking for any sniff of a scandal, to aid the softening up process for the All Blacks. Gatland will be equally wary of the pitfalls of the London rugby media, reminded of the circus surrounding off-field English player behaviour at the 2011 World Cup in NZ. The list of well publicised misdemeanours stretched from dwarf-tossing to diving into ferry berths.
Dylan Hartley, notwithstanding the improved performance of England under his captaincy, becomes the latest England captain to miss out on selection and follows in the footsteps of Steve Borthwick in 2009 and Chris Robshaw in 2013. The conventional wisdom seemingly rapidly becoming, unless the England captain is the Lions captain, it is best to remove him from the leadership environment altogether. Hartley was selected by Gatland in 2013, before his unfortunate disagreement at Twickenham with Wayne Barnes.
His disciplinary record did not augur well for life under the microscope of a Lions tour of NZ, but he can still consider himself very unlucky. His England understudy, Jamie George, tours along with Ken Owens and Rory Best (the last looking to make up for a disappointing 2013 tour to Australia).
Back-to-back Six Nations winners England unexpectedly provide the largest contingent, despite their defeat in Dublin and their narrow escape in Cardiff. No less than eight forwards in the front five positions.
With Gatland being the head coach of Wales (on Lions sabbatical), Welsh players were always likely to win 50/50 calls. The lack of preparation time militates towards tried, trusted and tested combinations and the players personally known to the coaching team.
Wales benefits in 2017, whilst Scotland in particular suffers.
Having failed to close out games against England and France, and finishing fifth in the final “Six Nations trial” for the Lions, there will nevertheless be sighs of relief from a number of Welsh players and from Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies in particular. The subsequent win over Ireland seemingly more important than a dismal 40 minutes at Murrayfield, especially as Scotland collapsed horrendously against England at Twickenham and then Ireland proceeded a week later to beat England on “Super Saturday”.
Whilst there are a number of 50/50 calls that could have gone another way, there are very few hugely controversial selections with this squad.
Second row is clearly where competition for places has been the fiercest, with players of the calibre of Joe Launchbury and the Gray brothers missing out on selection. The Scots provide no forwards, the injury in January to WP Nel probably opening up the opportunity for Kyle Sinclair at tight- head prop. The serious Welsh decline in the front five candidates is noticeable, providing only hooker Owens and the veteran AW Jones.
The back row sees a preference for physicality, with Ross Moriarty joining Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola and with Jamie Heaslip noticeably omitted. The Irish trio of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien provide tactical options and flexibility, as does the footballing Justic Tipuric. Hamish Watson, so destructive as an early injury replacement against Wales, is not selected but I would not be surprised if he arrived at some stage.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the likely game plan comes through these back row selections. The Lions will need to score tries, but clearly the thinking is that they must also compete aggressively at the breakdown and be defensively resilient.
The All Blacks will undoubtedly win a pure aerobic challenge, so there must be a major physical dogfight to add to the mix. Four world class goal-kickers are included. Kickable penalties secured must be turned into points on the scoreboard, without fail.
If there is a powerful pack, there is also plenty of pace in the backs. The English three-quarters of Elliot Daly, Jonathan Joseph, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson are hardly traditional “Warrenball” material, and the intelligent Jared Payne, but there is also carrying power across that gain line in Ben Te’o and Robbie Henshaw. And there are the silky counter-attacking skills of Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams at 15.
At half-back, Conor Murray and Rhys Webb are joined by Ben Youngs. Greig Laidlaw misses out, another Scot succumbing to an ill-timed injury. At outside-half, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell are joined by the steady Dan Biggar in preference to the attacking threat and defensive frailty of George Ford and the more high risk Finn Russell.
Despite three home wins in this season’s Six Nations, a number of Scottish players were always up against it after their Twickenham drubbing and especially in the context of having no Scottish presence in the coaching team. The exciting Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour do tour, but Alex Dunbar misses out.
But for untimely injuries, a number of others such as WP Nel, Greig Laidlaw and even Duncan Taylor might well have been selected. There have been previous Lions tours where both the Gray brothers would have toured, but the competition at lock in 2017 is savage.
But this is just the beginning of the selection story, and more players will no doubt be called up. Some players may sadly pick-up injuries between now and flying out to NZ, and players will undoubtedly pick-up injuries on a tour with such a brutal itinerary.
Forwards: Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales)
Backs: Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben Te’o (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)
3 June – Provincial union team (Toll Stadium, Whangarei)
7 June – Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
10 June – Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
13 June – Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
17 June – New Zealand Maori (International Stadium, Rotorua)
20 June – Chiefs (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
24 June – New Zealand (First Test, Eden Park, Auckland)
27 June – Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
1 July – New Zealand (Second Test, Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
8 July – New Zealand (Third Test, Eden Park, Auckland).