On Wednesday the ever-changing guessing games of pundits and bar-room punters alike will finally, and some might say mercifully, come to an end when Warren Gatland announces the composition of the Lions squad to tour New Zealand. Then comes the hard part: becoming the first Lions to win a Test series against the All Blacks for the first time since 1971.
For much of the last two years, as the All Blacks retained the World Cup and then seamlessly swept through the Rugby Championship with a maximum haul of 30 points from six games courtesy of six bonus-point wins at home and away to Australia, South Africa and Argentina, it has looked the most daunting assignment rugby, or perhaps any international team sport, could throw up.
The manner in which Ireland ended their 18-match winning sequence in Chicago last November offered a glimmer of light, but even that has been dimmed by what has happened since. New Zealand rugby is evidently in a tizzy over the prospect of the Lions dropping in for the first time in a dozen years, for not only are the tourists taking on the All Blacks and the Maoris but, in contrast to previous treks, they will also play the home country’s five super franchises as opposed to provincial sides.
Perhaps partly inspired by this, New Zealand’s five franchises have been cutting a swathe through the first seven rounds of the Super Rugby championship, winning all but one of their 15 games against teams from the other competing countries. The exception was the Chiefs defeat away to the Stormers in Cape Town. The New Zealand teams are 11-0 against their Wallabies’ counterparts.
Gatland agrees with Eddie Jones that the first Test in Eden Park is a win-or-bust game if the Lions are to have any hope of ending their 46-year wait for a series win in New Zealand. At the least, it would guarantee the 10-match tour and three-match Test series staying alive until the final game.
But consider this: not only have New Zealand won a record 45 Tests in a row at home, but they are unbeaten in 37 games at Eden Park and have won their last 36 Tests there, dating back to a 23-20 defeat to France on July 3rd, 1994. To maximise the financial return from gate receipts, after the second Test in Wellington, the series also concludes in Eden Park as well. So the Lions might have to do something nobody has done in 37 attempts not just once, but twice.
Despite Ireland proving that the All Blacks are not invincible, and England's onwards march as they retained their title, an uber-competitive Six Nations nonetheless maintained the worrying inability of all sides to win away, save for England in Cardiff. This is a trend which has been re-enforced at club level in the European Champions Cup.
Weight of history
Bearing all this in mind, even the 7/2 odds against the Lions winning the series don’t look especially generous. To compound the weight of history and statistics against them, the squad will assemble the day after the Guinness Pro12 and Premiership finals, have a Lions banquet that night, and depart the next day, arriving four days before the first match.
It’s little wonder therefore that Gatland unhesitatingly admits that winning the series would constitute the biggest achievement of his much-decorated coaching career.
This “eternal optimist” truly believes the Lions can do it. Although evidence that they can fulfil his ambition to “play some rugby and take New Zealand on at their own game” was in short supply during the Six Nations, it’s hard to dispute his claim that this squad’s strength in depth will be greater than four year ago.
“I’m incredibly excited about the quality of the squad we can pick for New Zealand. If I look back to 2013, I think we’ve got more depth, a better range of players than we had in 2013. So I think we should all be pretty excited about the potential of this tour and going to New Zealand and believing that we can win.
“The tricky bit is that some real quality players are going to miss out. If you look at the strength of the loose forwards, the secondrow, the back three, at 9 and 10 – there’s some depth at 10 – some real quality players are going to miss out. So the hardest thing for me is that being around and watching the games in the Six Nations, wherever you go there’s obviously a bias.”
For sure, this is an undoubtedly green-tinged selection here, including as it does, a dozen Irish players, along with 13 English, 10 Welsh and just three Scots, which is probably a little unfair on them.
Even then, it finds no room for Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner, Jared Payne, Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Keith Earls or Rob Kearney.
That Gatland, who has said they will pick 37 or 38 players, should first reference the depth of choice amongst the loose forwards is understandable.
Presuming there are three hookers and six props, the squad may only have room for seven backrow forwards, also on the premise that five locks would include a player who could provide a backrow option in Maro Itoje.
This could work against Henderson and possibly Peter O’Mahony as well.
After a slow-burning season Henderson gave a timely reminder of his undoubted dynamism against England, and the Lions would also gain additional versatility with his inclusion, but it’s hard to believe both he and O’Mahony will travel in addition to Itoje. Brian O’Driscoll is amongst those who has had to reluctantly come to that conclusion.
We've included O'Mahony because, as ventured by Donal Lenihan, no doubt leaving all his Cork Constitution loyalties aside, the Munster captain is the prototype of a good Lions tourist. He's also a ball-winner in the air and on the ground, and his lack of rugby, like a few others, can be seen as a blessing in disguise as it will leave him less fatigued from a long, hard season. Even Jeremy Guscott has said O'Mahony "screams midweek captain" with a view to also pressing for the Test team.
Ireland's loose forwards, along with their half-backs, are the team's core strength, and we've also found room for Seán O'Brien, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip. O'Brien is a big-game player, who excelled in a losing second Test four years ago, and the consistent effectiveness of Stander's ball-carrying, along with his ability to play number eight, surely can't be ignored.
While Gatland must have been impressed by the all-round rugby Heaslip has produced for much of the season until being sidelined for the Six Nations finale against England, he's a big fan of Toby Faletau. Hence, Heaslip could well miss out to two number eights, Vunipola and Faletau, who only started one game between them in the Six Nations.
In truth, it will be somewhat surprising if four Irish loose forwards are named in Wednesday's squad announcement, and nowhere will the list of absentees be more strikingly vivid than in the backrow. This list finds no room for James Haskell, Chris Robshaw, Henderson, Nathan Hughes, Faletau, Ross Moriarty, and all the Scottish loose forwards, including turnover king Hamish Watson.
In the secondrow, à la O'Mahony, Donnacha Ryan would bring another welcome dose of Munster doggedness. But counting against Ryan, Toner and Henderson is that, in addition to the three English locks named, Gatland is also an admirer of George Kruis, who, though sidelined for the Six Nations, was name-checked by the Lions head coach after the tournament.
It will be a surprise if Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong don't all travel in a frontrow compartment heavily populated with English players, even if that doesn't include taking a gamble on Dylan Hartley's disciplinary record.
The scrumhalves seemingly pick themselves, but as Gatland stressed, some good players will also miss out at outhalf with Wales, England and Scotland's first-choice number 10s seemingly vying for one spot. We'd have no qualms with a punt being taken on the creativity of Finn Russell or George Ford, but it's hard not to admire Dan Biggar's abilities and competitive spirit. And he's the most proven goal-kicker of the three.
There has to be an infusion of fresh, young and exceptional talent somewhere, and Garry Ringrose fits that bill. Even then, this list omits Jared Payne (who would provide another fullback option and native knowledge of the conditions), Ben Te'o, Scott Williams, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar and Jamie Roberts, although Gatland is sweet on Roberts.
We have reservations about Leigh Halfpenny's form, but again, he is another high-class goalkicker, and we find room for Simon Zebo, but not Earls, partly due to Zebo's left-footed kicking out of hand amid a posse of right-footers, and the better cover he offers at fullback.
The captaincy! Such is the prestige and mystique that goes with being a Lions captain that, in real terms, Gatland is assuredly right when he says the fuss made over it is perhaps a little excessive. As if to prove his point, when his choice of four years ago, Sam Warburton, was ruled out of the third Test, and with Paul O'Connell already sidelined for the series, Gatland famously omitted Brian O'Driscoll and instead opted to promote Alun Wyn Jones to lead the Lions to victory in that series decider.
If Warburton was the best choice four years ago when he became the youngest Lions captain of all, he’s an even better one now and would approach the role in a more refreshed manner after being relieved of the job with Wales.
Warburton has rediscovered his best form, can be accommodated in the Test team at his new position of 6, or back at 7, has a proven and successful relationship with Gatland, and communicates impressively with everybody around him – teammates, referees and in the public glare of the media.
Even his enforced six-week lay-off may be beneficial.
Perhaps more to the point, O'Driscoll (who served under Warburton four years ago), Ian McGeechan and Clive Woodward have all endorsed the Welsh man's credentials.
Whoever he and his coaching staff choose, Gatland has stressed he will tell his captain that his form has to be good enough to merit selection in the Test starting XV, and tell those in his position that form will be the criteria when it comes to Test selections.
Mindful of all that, and drawing on his own experience as head coach four years ago and an assistant coach eight years ago in South Africa, as well as conversations with McGeechan, Gatland adds: “The biggest challenge is that if we can get things right off the field, then we’ve got a chance of getting things right on the field, and trying to create that harmony within the squad, the right personalities, the right characters. That’s going to be paramount and the key to potentially having a winning series.”
Wednesday’s squad announcement has to be the biggest step in that process.
Gerry Thornley’s Lions squad
Fullbacks (2): Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Hogg’s abilities as a creator and finisher give the Lions a vital X-factor and make him the favourite for the 15 jersey come the first Test. Halfpenny’s goal-kicking and Lions experience may understandably edge him in ahead of Mike Brown and Rob Kearney, whose recent injury profile has not helped his candidature despite an upturn in form and specifically his performance in Chicago. The inclusion of wingers who can cover fullback could also work against the latter two.
Wings (5): Anthony Watson (England), Elliot Daly (England), George North (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Simon Zebo (Ireland)
North, the Lions’ game-breaker four years ago, surely cemented his place with his performance against Ireland. Watson, though he missed the first three rounds of the Six Nations, and Daly have done enough to demonstrate they’ll bring a cutting edge too. Williams, brilliant in the air and elusive and quick, could even be a contender for the Test team at fullback, recalling his outstanding performances there on the Welsh tour to New Zealand last June. Like Williams, Zebo covers fullback and, compared to Keith Earls, Jack Nowell, Tommy Seymour and others, provides a left-footed kicking outlet in the back three.
Centres (5): Jonathan Joseph (England), Owen Farrell (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Garry Ringrose (Ireland)
The Lions only named four specialist centres last time, but the inclusion of Owen Farrell, as an outhalf-cum-inside centre with a big-game temperament, goal-kicking and leadership credentials, allows Gatland and co to pick four other centres and two outhalves. Henshaw, outstanding in Chicago and in the Six Nations, and Davies, with additional credit in the bank from four years ago, look obvious picks. Jonathan Joseph, though he can be hit or miss, looks a probable too. That leaves a plethora of contenders vying for one spot. Ringrose has the form, and has played at 12 and 13, although one suspects Roberts might become a three-time tourist.
Outhalves (2): Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales)
Sexton ticks every single box, having been the chief playmaker on the Test-winning series of four years ago and in Ireland’s win over New Zealand in Chicago. His competitiveness, defence, big-game experience, goal-kicking and ability to bring others into the game make him the clear and obvious Test 10. Biggar’s physicality and competitiveness ought to see him included ahead of George Ford and Finn Russell, although Ford is a classy player and Russell, with his inventiveness and extensive box of tricks, would be a brave choice. Some good players are going to miss out here.
Scrumhalves(3): Conor Murray (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)
The three clear choices in a position of relative strength. Murray’s latest shoulder mishap stemmed his momentum, but his form of four years ago demonstrates he’s a proven tourist, and the all-round excellence of his passing, kicking, running and tackling in Chicago remains a benchmark. That said, Webb returned with an inventive flourish in the Six Nations when he was Wales’ most consistent player, and while not rescaling similar heights in the Six Nations, Youngs was exceptional for England in November. Murray is marginal favourite for the first Test, not least as Sexton’s established partner.
Props (6): MakoVunipola (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Joe Marler (England), Dan Cole (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland)
McGrath, Marler and Vunipola bring an extensive body of work and are at the peak of their powers. One could make a strong case for Healy, an original pick four years ago before unluckily sidelined after one game. And Rob Evans is pushing hard too. Cole leads the tightheads, although Furlong’s form through November and the Six Nations makes him a shoo-in for the tour. Zander Fagerson would be another relatively callow tighthead but proved an able deputy for WP Nel who, but for injury, would probably have made the cut.
Hookers (3): Ken Owens (Wales), Rory Best (Ireland), Jamie George (England)
Owens, strong and durable, has been a consistently effective performer. Best, although his Lions tour of four years ago won’t stand to him, would bring vast experience and proven leadership. No captain from the four home countries has lifted more trophies in the last two seasons than Dylan Hartley, but his disciplinary record would make him a risk too far as captain and even his unexceptional form could see him usurped by his English understudy. There’s no more proven impact replacement than Seán Cronin, who brings game-turning ball-carrying, as well as improved darts. If not included, Cronin should be the first on stand-by.
Locks (5): Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Joe Launchbury (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Maro Itoje (England), Jonny Gray (Scotland)
Maro Itoje is probably the first name pencilled in (his versatility gives the Lions an extra backrow option) along with that most durable of locks, Alun Wyn Jones, who is also captain or vice-captain material. Launchbury was thoroughly eclipsed at the Aviva by Ireland and Leinster, as was Lawes on the first of those Saturdays, but his strength over the ball is akin to a third flanker, and Lawes, though he can be petulant, is some athlete. It’s also hard to bypass Gray’s astonishing work-rate and tackle count throughout the season.
Flankers (5): CJ Stander (Ireland), Sam Warburton (Wales, captain) Justin Tipuric (Wales), Seán O'Brien (Ireland), Peter O'Mahony (Ireland)
Given his revitalised form and Gatland’s admiration for him, Warburton will assuredly go and has captaincy pedigree, with both his demotion at Wales and current lay-off potential blessings in disguise. Tipuric and O’Brien provide two more effective loose forwards at the breakdown, as well as so much carrying ability, where Stander reigns supreme, as well as providing authentic cover at number eight. O’Mahony, the prototype of what the Lions need according to former manager Donal Lenihan, would bring a hard-nosed Munsteresque competitive zeal, as well as ball-carrying, tackling, breakdown work and ball-winning, not to mention leadership, and an attitude that would make him a good tourist.
Number 8s (2): Billy Vunipola (England), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
As much as anything, the Lions are going to need players who get them onto the front foot, not least in a side coached by Gatland, and not only does Vunipola fit that bill more than anyone, being sidelined from November to March ought to leave him well primed for this tour. Heaslip would bring a more multi-dimensional game and experience from two previous tours. As with Warburton, Heaslip’s recent sidelining could even be seen as a silver lining, ie, a welcome rest before the rigours of the tour. All that said and done, one suspects Toby Faletau might make the cut ahead of him.