Only two number 10s looks unnecessarily risky
Wilkinson cries off as Gatland opts for no safety net beneath Sexton and Farrell
The inclusion of Jonathan Sexton (left) and England’s Owen Farrell (right) leaves the touring party light on options at 10. Photograph: Inpho
Brian O’Driscoll, seen here in Australia in 2001, will be touring for the fourth time with The Lions, but Jonny Wilkinson (far right) declined the offer. Photograph: Getty Images
Warren Gatland has always been a risk taker. Sometimes they come off, but other times throughout a 24 year coaching career, which began at Galwegians RFC, they have backfired badly.
Usually, though, his instinct is spot on.
Go back to when he parachuted a largely unknown 20-year-old centre into the Ireland team to face Australia in Brisbane in 1999.
He would have done something similar with an 18-year-old fullback on the previous summer’s trip to South Africa, but Gordon D’Arcy stayed home to sit his Leaving Certificate.
Gatland has certainly taken another big risk with today’s 37-man squad to tour Australia by naming only two outhalves.
As Jonny Wilkinson said on Sunday, in his man-of-the-match interview, Owen Farrell is the future and deserves to be there as Jonathan Sexton’s back-up.
This was after Wilkinson schooled the 21-year-old in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham, guiding Toulon past Saracens with seven penalties and a perfect left-footed drop goal just as Farrell rattled his rib cage.
Wilkinson’s amazing show of sportsmanship, immediately consoling his distraught successor in the England number 10 jersey, was alone worth bringing him on the plane for.
But the Kiwi and attack coach Andy Farrell opted not to pick a second 34-year- old to face the Wallabies 12 years on from the last Lions test series down under.
According to team manager Andy Irvine, Wilkinson informed Gatland his “body wasn’t up for it”, while his commitment to Toulon’s ongoing Top 14 campaign complicated matters for him and management.
Not that it is a major risk going with either Sexton or Farrell, but a genuine concern is that none of the other 14 backs have played outhalf at the highest level.
Three fullbacks, three scrumhalves, six props, seven backrowers but only two outhalves almost certainly guarantees the need for reinforcements on a 10-game tour, and probably before the first Test at Suncorp on June 22nd.
If not Wilkinson, one from Ian Madigan, James Hook and even Alex Goode had displayed the form and versatility to be a valuable tourist.
Gatland thinks otherwise.
Madigan made a valiant late charge but Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo can feel even more aggrieved.
Zebo’s foot injury against England in February left him with too much ground to make up. Still, it looks a harsh call. Tommy Bowe made the latest of dashes but he is a Gatland favourite from four years ago. George North is world class and monstrous, Sean Maitland is a proven tryscorer in the southern hemisphere (incidentally, the former Maori and Canterbury flyer went to the same school, Hamilton Boys High, as Gatland), while Alex Cuthbert’s stunning performance against England in the championship decider made it impossible to overlook his candidacy. Those two tries, one after brushing past Mike Brown, made it very clear what the Lions want from their wingers in Australia against the likes of Israel Folau.
Size and pace. Gatland has gone with four huge wingers but Zebo is unlucky and may yet get re-routed from Ireland’s North American tour.
Really, that stunning Welsh performance in Cardiff on the last day of the Six Nations sorted out most of the tough decisions. It certainly saw Toby Faletau and Justin Tipuric soar past English duo Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw.
O’Mahony got lost in the tumble dryer. First Lions tour without a Corkman since 1997.
There was an argument for Mike Ross going as the third tighthead but Saracens prop Matt Stevens got the nod. Having served a two-year ban for cocaine, here’s proof that there are second chances in professional sport.
Finally, Rory Best was pipped at the post by another Kiwi as the combative and occasionally dirty Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley joins converted centre Tom Youngs and Wales’ Richard Hibbard.
Best’s form around the field for Ireland has been sensational since 2011 but his lineout throwing during the Six Nations cost him.
They call the Lions the power of four (nations). This time it could the power of eight because that’s how many countries are represented in the squad. There are three players born in New Zealand (Hartley, Maitland and Mako Vunipola), Stevens is from South Africa but capped by England, Manu Tuilagi was born in, and his brothers all played for, Samoa, while Welsh number eight Faletau was born in Tonga and his dad Kuli represented them at the 1999 world cup.
All told, considering Ireland’s abysmal Six Nations, nine tourists isn’t a bad return. Scotland’s three makes them the real losers as England get 10 and the Welsh heavy coaching ticket goes with 15 of their own.
It’s a menacing looking Pride of Lions but the outhalf decision looks unnecessarily risky.