Gatland picks a squad to meet Springboks’ physical challenge head on

Ireland left with most hard luck stories as Sexton, Ryan and Ringrose miss out

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland announced his 37-man squad on Thursday - with no place on it for Johnny Sexton. Photograph: Inpho

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland announced his 37-man squad on Thursday - with no place on it for Johnny Sexton. Photograph: Inpho

 

Warren Gatland and his assistant coaches will have been relieved when they’d completed their round of media duties yesterday. Coming hard on the heels of a particularly difficult selection meeting before finalising their 37-man Lions squad to tour South Africa, as is usually the case national identity fuelled much of the inquisition.

The Scots seemed close to delirious with eight players, their highest representation since 1989, and the Welsh were pretty satisfied with having 10 albeit with misgivings about the exclusion of Jonathan Davies, player of the tour four years ago, and Josh Navidi.

Despite a the strongest allocation with 11, the English media led the charge on behalf of Kyle Sinckler especially, and also Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade. But even Gatland and Gregor Townsend had to confess that Ireland had the most hard luck stories, even if eight players would have appeared a positive outcome given the absence of any Irish coaches on the ticket save for Leinster’s forwards coach Robin McBryde.

Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw were nailed on, and Andrew Porter and Iain Henderson were strong candidates, while Bundee Aki and Jack Conan were unexpected bonuses. But Johnny Sexton, James Ryan and, again, Garry Ringrose could rightly feel aggrieved.

Sexton was omitted after recently being stood down for six weeks to avoid a third concussion episode since the turn of the year, and the Lions medical team were assured that he has passed all protocols and is, according to Stuart Lancaster “training the house down”.

As Gatland effectively admitted, it certainly wasn’t a form issue.

“I thought we was outstanding against Scotland, great against England. At the end of the day he is a quality player. It wasn’t about concussion for me. We made a tough call about durability.

“We went back and yeah he played the Six Nations. But the thing with the Six Nations is that you have a couple of games and then you get a week off because it is really tough. He’s been rested on a number of occasions for Leinster or Ireland.

“But the last time Johnny played three consecutive weekends in a row was 2018. And he has had some knocks, but he’s had a number of different injuries.

“I just wanted to send a message to the guys we have selected that ‘we have complete confidence in you to do a job’. And this is mitigating against the risk that if we picked Johnny and he doesn’t play games, doesn’t get through the tour, then having to call someone in, for me it’s such an important position I just wanted to get that right.”

The Lions head coach also pointed to Russell’s control and game management against France while still providing “a point of difference” from the other outhalves.

Unlucky

Gatland referenced Leinster’s defeats by Saracens last September and La Rochelle last Sunday when encountering Will Skelton, especially with the Springboks in mind, while admitting Ryan was also “very unlucky”.

Ringrose’s absence from Ireland’s win over England led to the Lions head coach being particularly taken by the “absolutely brilliant” performances of Aki and Henshaw, at 13 that day.

Believing his centres provide a good balance Gatland likened Aki to Tuilagi. “He brings that go forward, that physicality, and has a fantastic mix in his game. They (South Africa) are going to have a big physical midfield and be really direct. We have to have players to mirror that if we need to, but also have to go and play some rugby with centres that can distribute and a back three that can score tries.”

Townsend believes they have three options at 12, in Owen Farrell, Aki and Henshaw, and three at 13 in Chris Harris, Elliot Daly and Henshaw again.

British and Irish Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones watches the squad announcement on Thursday. Photograph: Inpho
British and Irish Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones watches the squad announcement on Thursday. Photograph: Inpho

Up front, eyebrows will have been raised over the non-selection of Cian Healy and Sinckler. Both Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson making the cut, and Gatland cited Scotland’s particularly low penalty count at scrum time as well as Andrew Porter’s flexibility in covering both sides of the scrum.

“With the loose forwards, and particularly with Sam [SIMMONDS]and Taulupe Faletau, we looked at number 8s being explosive in the way they carry, with footwork,” said Gatland, which assuredly applies to Conan as well. “Billy (Vunipola) at the moment he is probably not quite there.”

With its decided emphasis on meeting the Springboks’ physical challenge head on, Gatland admitted the squad may have looked “a little bit different if you were going to Australia or New Zealand.

DNA

“I think South Africa have gone back to their DNA. Looking at the World Cup, looking at the documentary they’ve done, it shows you what their mentality is. It’s about being physical and winning that physical battle.

“We want to play some really good rugby but at times we’re going to have to roll our sleeves up and get in the trenches and back each other up, because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be brutal at times.”

Presuming the Exeter Chiefs reach the Premiership final, Saracens will be playing in the Championship promotion play-offs and also factoring in Finn Russell’s commitments with Racing, at least 10 players could well be missing from the training camp in Jersey.

Although the rising tensions in the fishing waters of Jersey were not expected to sink the Lions’ plans, Gatland quipped: “I’m only concentrating on the rugby side, not the gunboats and the other stuff that’s going on. We’ve just got to make sure that if we do go fishing we don’t go out too far.”

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