A good dynamic blend but Lions squad may be short of playmakers
It’s a selection made in Wales and Warren Gatland’s own images
Simon Zebo:The Munster and Ireland wing was possibly one of the unluckiest of all players not be selected. Photograph: Getty Images
This squad ticks plenty of boxes. It’s a nice blend of experience and relative youth, with an emphasis on the latter given many of the first-time tourists in Lions’ red are proven at Test level, and mostly in the red of a winning Wales. They are also more likely to withstand the heavy going of a ten-match, three-Test, six-week tour and double training sessions at the end of a long, hard, ten-month domestic season. It is very much a Warren Gatland selection.
The captain, Sam Warburton, is very much the embodiment of this squad; young, vigorous, successful, Welsh, durable and uber fit, and thus a leader from the front; not to mention dynamic and especially good at the breakdown.
As Gatland intimated yesterday, Warburton is also the captaincy candidate most likely to last the rigours of this tour, besides which, for all Brian O’Driscoll’s disappointment at missing out four years ago on emulating Martin Johnson as a two-tour captain, both he and Paul O’Connell might enjoy returning to the trenches as such to some degree. Both will be able to concentrate on their own fitness and performance levels that little bit more, and the Lions may well benefit from that as well.
As things stand, and as Gatland said yesterday, Warburton is closer to being a starter in the first Test than the Irish legends. Against that, Warburton, it is true, has no experience of even being on a Lions’ tour, but as first-tour captains go, he too ticks plenty of boxes.
Came up short
He led Wales to their Grand Slam last season and to the World Cup semi-finals, and on their three-tour of Australia last year, a tour which encompassed the Lions’ three Test venues – although Wales narrowly came up short in all three of those Tests.
The return from injury of O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Jonathan Sexton assuredly helped Ireland’s representation, while also underlining how Ireland had been depowered by the cruellest of casualty lists in the Six Nations.
That being said, if Conor Murray (whose selection in addition to Mike Phillips may well have Will Genia in mind) and Jamie Heaslip were possibly the beneficiaries of close calls, Rory Best and Simon Zebo were assuredly victims of them, and perhaps amid a hint of national carve-ups.
Peter O’Mahony is a little unfortunate in the ultra competitive backrow area where Ben Morgan, Tom Wood and the respective captains of England and Scotland, Chris Robshaw and Kelly Brown, also missed out. England’s numbers were swelled by the inclusion of five frontrow forwards, two of whom edged out the unfortunate Best. For sure his wayward line-out throwing in the Six Nations was a critical factor, but even allowing for the coaches’ having eyes on impact replacements, he is desperately unlucky.
So too is Zebo, maybe even more so. He would have brought strength, pace, an X-Factor, a strong left-boot, an ability to cover fullback and a better balance to the wings, which have, ostensibly, a three-one split toward the right-wing. He would also have made a superb tourist and, for all the undoubted attributes Sean Maitland brings there’s something not quite right about a Kilted Kiwi getting in ahead of Zebo after one season with Glasgow.
However, it’s clear that the coaches have closely watched the Wallabies, and of late Super Rugby’s pace-setting Brumbies and improving Reds, with their array of attacking game-breakers at half-back, top-of-the-ground runners, breakdown specialists and ability to play a high intensity, high tempo game. For example, there is no obsession with size in the backrow. Warburton typifies the array of energetic and dynamic backrowers which also features another couple of openside options in Seán O’Brien and Justin Tipuric.
Gatland and co have clearly identified impact replacements, to the exclusion of strong scrummagers in the frontrow such as Mike Ross and Best, hence the variety which dynamic frontrowers such as Maku Vunipola and Matt Stevens offer, as well as Tom Youngs, Dylan Hartley and Cian Healy. Without wishing to pick on the Scots, it may also partially explain the selection of Richie Gray, who has been afforded some largesse given his hamstring has sidelined him since the Six Nations.
Above all, it’s a squad designed to win a Test series in Australia, and it does appear to tick the relevant boxes. One possible shortcoming though is in the 10-12 area, where there are just two specialist outhalves and one specialist inside centre, even if Stuart Hogg will be the third outhalf and additional goal-kicking option while Jonathan Davies can play at 12.
Reflecting on how Sexton was “outstanding” in the Six Nations opener against Wales, Lions’ backs coach Rob Howley noted that “Ireland missed a navigator at ten” in the remainder of the tournament. Suffice to say that Sexton’s form and well-being could make him the most important Lion of all.