Gerry Thornley: Experience the order of the day in Lions squad
There are significantly more hard-luck stories this time around, despite 41 selections
It is a measure of the 2017 Lions squad that despite accommodating four more players than was the case for the original 37-man squad four years ago, there are significantly more hard-luck stories this time around.
Being parochial for a moment, most Irish supporters will have quickly deduced that there are 11 players from Ireland, along with 16 from England, a dozen Welsh and, not surprisingly despite winning three games out of five for the first time since 2006, just two Scots.
Jared Payne is assuredly the most surprising inclusion, perhaps even to himself, but then again one can understand where Warren Gatland and co are coming from. Ironically, Gatland released Payne from Waikato in his one year coaching his native province, whereupon Payne relocated to Northland and re-launched his career.
The New Zealand-born, naturalised Ulster and Ireland player not only offers one of the squad’s most prized commodities, but such has been his profound influence on Ireland’s performances that he has invariably been involved in their biggest wins, be it over the three southern hemisphere sides and England in the last 12 months, or France in the World Cup, whereas his absence has been keenly felt for some of the more disappointing losses – such as the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina or indeed this season’s defeats to Scotland and Wales.
Indeed, those wins stood to the Irish contingent, as eight of the 10 started in the win over the All Blacks in Chicago, while Sean O’Brien also had a big game in the return meeting in Dublin, and nine of the 10 started the win over England.
That was the day Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony assuredly staked their claim for inclusion in this Lions squad. Henderson not only had a big game that day, but would have impressed the Lions coaches, and especially Steve Borthwick, in the manner he called the line-outs.
In the heel of the hunt, Jamie Heaslip pulling up in the warm-up against England not only put paid to his chances, but opened the door for his late replacement, Peter O’Mahony. Again, his line-out work, both offensively and defensively, would have impressed Borthwick and co, and he’s backed that up with huge games for Munster.
As Jeremy Guscott has observed, O’Mahony screams midweek captain while also pressing a claim for the test team. In the absence of Donnacha Ryan, who started both of those landmark wins over New Zealand and England as well and whose credentials were definitely discussed, O’Mahony will also bring a bit of that Munster dog vital for wet midweek nights against the likes of the Chiefs in Hamilton.
As well as the halves, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and the front-row trio of Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong, O’Mahony is accompanied by two other Irish loose forwards in O’Brien and CJ Stander.
There are a trio of Irish backs who were considered at length – Garry Ringrose, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo – who, unlike Payne, didn’t make it, although it would be no surprise if one or more ultimately did.
The hard luck stories won’t be confined to Ireland.
What of the meagre Scottish representation? The Lions coaches would have been acutely aware of their tiny contingent. Certainly Nicola Sturgeon’s case for another referendum won’t have been harmed. But the Lions coaches would have been acutely aware of their tiny contingent, and it’s hard to make a compelling case for any of their absent numbers, perhaps save for Johnny Gray.
But once George Kruis returned to action last weekend, then it was hard to see how Gray could push his way in ahead of Courtney Lawes, a beast of an athlete tailormade for this tour if he keeps his discipline in check, and Maro Itoje, probably one of the first names in the 41.
England have the highest contingent, and despite forecasts to the contrary, Jonathan Joseph’s potent running game has been accommodated, along with the hard straight running of Ben Te’o. But Dylan Hartley emulates Borthwick himself and Chris Robshaw in becoming the third in-situ England captain in a row to not make the cut.
Wales can have few complaints, even if rumours of Jamie Roberts’ inclusion proved unfounded. No doubt much will be made of the inclusion of four Welsh back-rowers and three Irish loose forwards.
Is that bias? Or is it just acknowledging the best players? More the latter surely.
Whereas Sam Warburton, the outstanding candidate to emulate Martin Johnson as a two-time captain, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau always looked nailed on along with Billy Vunipola, the surprise is Ross Moriarty. Having started all five games in the Six Nations, the Gloucester and Welsh number eight made the cut in large part due to his barnstorming, big-hitting performances against England and Ireland. He was the only opposing loose forward to effectively stop Stander in his tracks.
The 22 forwards named ought to provide not only plenty of competition and versatility, but set-piece expertise and physical power. There are a plethora of proven ball-carriers.
As well as plenty of versatility, a primary requirement given the Lions will be facing all five Super Rugby franchises for the first time as well as the New Zealand Maoris, there is experience. Alun Wyn Jones and Leigh Halfpenny are going on their third tour, and there’s 16 from four years ago.
The optimism and positive energy from the coaches is palpable. There looks to be real competition in virtually every unit of the squad, certainly at lock, backrow, scrumhalf and the back three, where up to nine players will be competing for those spots come the tests.
Taking 41 players instead of the intended 37 or 38 underlines the competition for places, and also the need for plenty of cover. It’s conceivable that the Pro12 and Premiership finals, which will take place two days before the squad departs, could feature Saracens, Leinster and Munster.
If so, that could effectively rule 15 players out of the first game against a Provincial Barbarians XV in Whangerei. That will fairly limit the Lions’ preparation time as well, for what is perhaps the most daunting Lions tour imagineable, or of the professional era anyway.
But under a New Zeland-born and reared head coach who has been coaching for much of the last 28 years at test level in the northern hemisphere, and who has experience of a losing test series as an assistant coach and a winning one as a head coach, this experienced coaching ticket and playing squad looks equipped enough to be competitive.
British and Irish Lions squad for tour of New Zealand:
Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben T’eo (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England), Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales, capt).