Gatland’s Lions will be hard, straight-running and athletic types
Warburton set to captain squad due to strong relationship with coach
Sam Warburton: odds-on to be named captain of the Lions.
Warren Gatland and his assistant Lions coaches went into lengthy conclave one final time in London yesterday, emerging at tea-time having finally settled upon the squad of 37, give or take, which will be unveiled at 11am this morning. Having given themselves an extra three weeks to incorporate the weekend’s European action, Gatland and co have clearly used up every available minute to consider their many options.
When they reveal their hand this morning, ideally they will want an amalgam of tried and tested Lions who stood up to be counted over the course of the tour to South Africa and before, along with a core of relatively seasoned internationals at the relative prime of their careers and one or two bolters, with several having come back from injury since the Six Nations and thus relatively fresh at the end of a ten month season.
All the better, too, that they have proven themselves at the coalface of the game, capable of undertaking a heavy workload including some daily double sessions, and are ultra physical in high intensity games liable to go well on dry tracks. They will mirror Gatland’s style of hard, straight-running, athletic teams which have been the hallmark of his sides over the years.
Very much his own man, he won’t be inclined to bow to media pressure or care unduly about the national make-up of the party. In other words, there will be plenty of Welsh, including the captain.
Time was when the identity of the Lions captain might still be a source of speculation up until the announcement. However, as was the case four years ago when the bookies stopped the betting on Paul O’Connell (not to mention Joe Schmidt taking over the Irish job), so it appears again that a flood of bets with Paddy Power and Ladbrokes, particularly in south Wales and around Wigan, on Sam Warburton has stymied any sense of surprise.
Gatland enjoys a strong and trusting working relationship with the mature 23-year-old, as was evident in the last World Cup. Granted, operating in something of a bubble away from the rest of the tournament up and down New Zealand is altogether different from fronting the Lions for six weeks.
But Warburton, a natural born if decidedly reluctant leader, who expressed a desire not to captain Wales in their Six Nations decider at home to England, is seen as an articulate, exemplary captain both off and on the pitch.
As senior players themselves have noted, unlike previous tours and tour selections, the composition of the Test team itself as much as the squad has had an unpredictable look. Where before there would have been eight or nine probably starters, there appeared to be fewer during the course of the Six Nations. Arguably, though, that changed a good deal on the final weekend of the Six Nations when Wales bullied England into a submission.
All changed, changed utterly with that most relevant of one-off trials, all the more so as it backed up the Welsh Grand Slam of a year previously and their showing at the World Cup – the strongest of the Home Unions. At a stroke that night’s starting XV, with the possible exception of Dan Biggar, sealed their places on the plane.
Their numbers might have been more but for injuries to Rhys Priestland and Luke Charteris, though as it is may well be swelled by one or two more in the shape of Dan Lydiate, who plays the fifth game of his comeback for the Ospreys this Friday at the RDS, and back-up hooker Ken Owens, who is rumoured to be a very strong competitor in one of the most competitive of all positions. If that were the case, then one of Richard Hibbard, Rory Best or Tom Youngs would miss out, and that’s not including Ross Ford and Dylan Hartley.
Most of the others to have returned to form and fitness post Six Nations, and thereby availed of the additional three weeks before today’s cut-off point, are likely to swell Ireland’s representation, as Declan Kidney amongst others would be inclined to notice.
Into this category, most obviously, fall Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo. O’Connell must assuredly travel after his rampaging return to form in Munster’s latest Heineken Cup quest, along with the Welsh pair of Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans, and perhaps Geoff Parling or Joe Launchbury. Richie Gray’s candidature hasn’t been helped by the hamstring injury which has sidelined him since the Scotland-Wales game, and Nathan Hines could be another ‘Scottish’ consideration.
Along with the Welsh starting backrow and Lydiate, the return from injury of the versatile Tom Croft looks timely, with Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip the other backrowers. Aside from playing every minute of the series four years ago, Heaslip’s timely nudge to the attendant Lions selectors last Saturday augments his standing as this season’s leading performer in the ERC Otpa Index, with 110 carries, 79 tackles (one missed) and sundry other off-loading, turnover and lineout stats in eight Heineken or Amlin Challenge Cup matches.
If Mike Phillips travels as the notional number one scrumhalf along with Ben Youngs, then it makes sense to have a more like-for-like understudy to him, ie Conor Murray; all the more so as he outplayed Danny Care in the quarter-final.
Now comes possibly the biggest riddle. The lack of options at number 12, compounded by Brad Barritt’s ankle injury on Sunday, underlines the need for a third outhalf/inside centre. Owen Farrell’s ability to do both could strengthen the campaign for Jonny Wilkinson’s inclusion, although here again Gatland will not be inclined to pander to that. Billy Twelvetrees gave England another dimension at inside centre against Scotland, and is a 10/12, as is James Hook, and there are clearly rumours about Ian Madigan, backed in from 12/1 to 1/8 with Paddy Power, making the plane.
Whether coincidentally or not, he showcased his ability at inside centre last Saturday, and of course can also cover at fullback. Another potential bolter is the Wasps flyer Christian Wade or the Scottish winger Seán Maitland, which would say much for the indigenous wing reserves. But there is bound to be a bolter or two.
Possible Lions squad.
Fullbacks (3): Leigh Halfpenny, Rob Kearney, Stuart Hogg.
Wings (4): George North, Alex Cuthbert, Tommy Bowe, Sean Maitland.
Centres (5): Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi, Billy Twelvetrees.
Outhalves (2):Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell.
Scrumhalves (3): Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Conor Murray.
Props (6): Gethin Jenkins, Cian Healy, Mako Vunipola, Adam Jones, Dan Cole, Matt Stevens.
Hookers (3): Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs, Dylan Hartley.
Locks (4): Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Ian Evans, Geoff Parling.
Flankers (5): Sam Warburton (capt), Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Seán O’Brien, Tom Croft.
Number eights (2): Toby Felatau, Jamie Heaslip.
Possible bolters: Ian Madigan, Christian Wade, Ken Owens.