Gatland waits for missing faces to complete his pride of Lions
The coach could rely on experience and those returning from injury for the squad, writes GERRY THORNLEY
The big barstool debate of the season has begun in earnest, namely the composition of a prospective Lions’ squad/Test team for the first Test against the Wallabies on June 22nd in Suncorp Stadium. It’s all a bit of fun, from which no one is immune, not even Warren Gatland and his coaching staff, although, of course, theirs is the only selection that matters.
But even Gatland concedes they’ll draw up provisional squads in the light of the autumn internationals which conclude today when Wales and England host Australia and New Zealand. They will go through that process again before, during and after the Six Nations. And you can be sure that, no less than the rest of us, their provisional squads will change each time as well.
Even then the squad will be subject to the vagaries of injuries and form, both collective and individual, as some candidates may well sink or rise on the back of their team’s form.
The Six Nations will do more than anything to cement places, but even then, the concluding stages of the Heineken Cup and domestic championships will have a bearing. After all, would eight Munster men have been chosen in the original squad four years ago had it not come on the back of them thrashing the Ospreys 43-9 in the quarter-finals over a week beforehand? From little acorns and all that.
One win in eight games
The performances of the Home Union countries against their southern hemisphere counterparts wouldn’t appear to inspire confidence, not least as the injury-ravaged Wallabies are sure to have a host of key men back and thus be in better shape come June. But Gatland was not especially surprised or perturbed by the past month, which thus far has seen just one win for the Home Union countries in eight games at home to teams from the Rugby Championship, namely Ireland’s last week.
“I think when you reflect back on the autumn you can see that from the Championship those teams have been together for a number of weeks. They’ve probably come in a little bit sharper and are a little bit better prepared, and having played at an intensity week in and week out, that it’s taken some of the Home Unions a little bit of time to get up to speed with really. So I’m not surprised by that really.”
Casting his eye across the candidates, Gatland said: “In some areas I think there is some real strength. There’s a few injuries, but I think there is potentially a very strong secondrow, in the backrow there’s a lot of competition, in the midfield and back three I think there’s some real options there, and some players playing with some form. We’re still lacking a lot of strength in depth in certain areas if we do pick up injuries, or whatever, but I think there are some potentially real strengths in the Lions’ squad as well.”
As revealing were the areas he didn’t highlight as being perceived strengths, such as frontrow and half-back. Tellingly too, when Gatland was asked which Home Union players would make a World XV from 2012, he struggled to name one, as would most. (Cian Healy might be the only one who would.)
With the Heineken Cup final on May 18th and the finals of both the Rabo Pro 12 and Premiership on May 25th, Gatland forsees his squad having little or no time together on the training ground before flying out to Hong Kong for the first warm-up game against the Barbarians a week later, on June 3rd.