No quibbles as Ireland grab nine Lions jerseys
Sam Warburton is named captain among a 15-strong Welsh contingent while Warren Gatland admits Simon Zebo was unlucky to miss out
British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton at the announcement of the squad. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
When push came to shove, there weren’t too many surprises when the 2013 Lions unveiled their squad to tour Australia in the swanky surrounds of the Hilton London Syon Park Hotel in Middlesex yesterday.
Nor were there too many complaints – save for a litany of questions regarding Jonny Wilkinson who appears ultimately to have ruled himself out – or even bolters, though inevitably there were some hard-luck stories.
As expected, the 24-year-old Sam Warburton becomes the youngest Lions captain since Robin Thompson of Ireland in 1955, and leads a squad in which Wales are the bulk suppliers with 15; their largest representation since 16 were initially chosen for the 1977 tour and 18 ultimately travelled.
It’s hard to argue against Wales being the bulk suppliers, given that their handsome win over England in the most meaningful final trial, that being the Six Nations decider in the Millennium Stadium in March when the Welsh put England to the sword by 30-3, backed up their Six Nations and World Cup achievements of 2011.
“I couldn’t have asked for any more from the last game in terms of players performing under pressure and to be honest sometimes it comes down to an individual performance that tips the balance. It might have flipped an English player to a Welsh player on the performance that day,” said Lions coach Warren Gatland.
“It was the most intense and physical game I’d seen in the northern hemisphere since I’ve been here. And I thought the atmosphere from the crowd that day was fantastic.”
Nor is it hard to quibble too much with Ireland’s representation of nine given their Six Nations campaign when finishing fifth, as against 10 from runners-up England, who were also champions last year. Yet Rory Best and Simon Zebo were notably unlucky, while word has it that Mike Ross, Peter O’Mahony and Ian Madigan were also closely considered.
Warburton typifies a notably youthful squad, though there remain a dozen survivors from four years ago, along with a smattering of Lions’ veterans in Brian O’Driscoll, a four-time tourist, and Paul O’Connell and Gethin Jenkins, both going on their third tour. They will be particularly helpful amongst the leadership group as lieutenants to the first-time tourist-cum-captain Warburton.
In explaining his decision to choose Warburton, the first Lions captain to assume the captaincy without any previous Lions’ experience since Finlay Calder on the 1989 trek to Australia, Gatland said: “It wasn’t a decision that was made until reasonably recently. Someone I’ve worked with closely and I really respect the job he’s done for Wales, particularly as a young man. He’s a young man with an old head on him, particularly the job he did with Wales in 2011 at the World Cup and he was a Grand Slam-winning captain last year.”
Regarding Warburton declining the chance to captain Wales in that decider against England, Gatland added: “One thing I always admired about Sam Warburton is that if he was a selfish guy he would have taken the captaincy back but he was putting the team first. He just wanted to come back and play himself. He’s a quiet man who leads from the front and he’ll do a brilliant job for the Lions in Hong Kong and Australia.”
Surer of his place
Revealingly, Gatland hinted that as things stand Warburton was surer of his place in the first Test in Brisbane on June 22nd than O’Connell or O’Driscoll.
“There was always the potential of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell being considered for selection (as captain), but when it came down to it, if I was being honest and we were picking a team tomorrow and a Test side tomorrow, I think Sam Warburton would be one of the names in that Test side, whether it was at number six or whether it was at number seven,” he said.
Gatland confirmed that Zebo was one of the two or three wingers to just miss out. “Yea, he definitely was, and we spoke about his left foot as well and ability to play fullback too. He was very unlucky, I would have to admit that. He’s an exciting young player. Yeah, it was a tough call. He was definitely unlucky to be one of the ones who missed out.”
Gatland twice described Best as “desperately unlucky” and intimating that Best’s lineout throwing in the Six Nations cost him heavily.
With only two specialist outhalves, Stuart Hogg will provide utility cover, and one specialist inside centre, the Lions look a little light on a kicking game in midfield.
“Jonathan Davies is a good kicker and he’s important for us,” said Gatland, “and that’s where we had that discussion potentially with 10 and with someone like Simon Zebo and Kearney being important from an exit strategy; having left footers. Brian O’Driscoll has obviously got a kicking game as well. So I’m not worried about two of the centres; the other two aren’t the greatest kickers in the world but we’re not all good at everything, are we?”