Gatland waits for missing faces to complete his pride of Lions
Hence he has repeatedly stated that the opening three games will be used to ensure every squad member has at least one start, and that they will not be “getting too hung-up” on the results of the warm-up games before the first Test.
It is in those key weeks where there will be further movement within the squad toward Test starting spots.
Only 15 of the 35 can start that first Test, with just 23 of the 35 involved in the match-day squad. While naming the first 24 or 25 should not be too hard he admitted, Gatland recalls from three years ago that coming up with the final ten or so is the tricky part, and as important in their selection will be their character and willingness to be a good squadie. Personalities who might be inclined to “throw their toys out of the pram” need not apply.
Nothing encapsulates the changing fortunes of would-be Lions than the prospective candidates for the captaincy, and in particular Sam Warburton. He would have been favourite to lead the Lions after the World Cup and Wales’ Grand Slam success last season. But reflecting Wales’ slump from champs to chumps, he has been struggling for form and was even dropped by Wales for the game against Samoa.
Indeed, Gatland admitted that “maybe a couple of lines” could be drawn through a few of the prospective Welsh Lions who needed to “re-establish themselves”. Ireland have, of course, just negotiated an autumn window without two former Lions captains and the last two ERC European Players of the Year, one of whom was a Test star in South Africa three years ago. Stephen Ferris would have starred on that tour but for injury while Rory Best has also been missing. Six or seven of the Welsh contenders are among their dozen players ruled out today.
So perhaps the Lions might yet reap the benefits from some stellar names returning to the fray with a truncated rather than exhausting season behind them. With the Lions management and Gatland conscious of the need for continuity in the coaching department, similarly if there’s a close call in the squad then playing experience of three years ago will count.
The men likely to make the Lions team
Rob Kearney (Ireland)
Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Ben Foden (England)
If Kearney regains his fitness and form then, with his experience of ’09 in South Africa, he goes, as does Halfpenny (not least for his versatility and goalkicking). But Ben Foden, like Kearney, is class.
George North (Wales)
Tommy Bowe (Ireland)
Alex Cuthbert (Wales)
Tim Visser (Scotland)
Chris Ashton could yet be hard to ignore, and either Charlie Sharples or James Simpson-Daniel might yet be hard to resist, while there could be an Irish bolter yet in Simon Zebo or Craig Gilroy.
Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
Jonathan Davies (Wales)
Jamie Roberts (Wales)
Brad Barritt (England)
O’Driscoll is pencilled in on the premise that Gatland, who gave him his debut and worked with him again three years ago, will assuredly be doing so as well. Roberts needs to regain some form, Manu Tuilagi would be irresistible if he ever develops a creative game, but if there’s a centre-wing option, Scott Williams always steps in seamlessly for Wales.
Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
Jonny Wilkinson (England)
Owen Farrell (England)
With a limit on numbers, there seems sure to be a slot for a goalkicking outhalf cum centre ala James Hook in ’09, but this time that might be filled by Farrell. Confidence at a low ebb and the primary target of a critical Welsh social media, Rhys Priestland will need to be rebuilt. Wilkinson runs the risk of attracting a media circus, but if he maintains his form with Toulon he may be impossible to resist. A certain Cork man can’t be ruled out entirely either.
Ben Youngs (England)
Mike Phillips (Wales)
Conor Murray (Ireland)
Danny Care could yet edge out the classy Youngs (two feisty diminutive English scrumhalves might be one too many) and there’s a long line of would-be contenders, Tavis Knoyle, Chris Cusiter etc, with Phillips picked more on past achievements than a continually faltering career, and Murray on the promise now coming to fruition again.
Cian Healy (Ireland)
Alex Corbisiero (England)
Adam Jones (Wales)
Dan Cole (England)
Paul James (Wales)