Lions squad announcement: Coaching ticket could cost Johnny Sexton a swansong
Absence of any Irish coach on the Lions’ coaching staff could count against players making squad
Warren Gatland: the Lions head coach and his assistants faced a particularly difficult choice in assembling the squad. Photograph: David Davies/PA
Rarely, if ever, has a British & Irish Lions squad been put together at such relatively late notice and hence rarely, if ever, has it looked so difficult to call.
The coaching staff was only assembled three weeks ago as opposed to the first week in December, ala four years ago. Normally therefore, Warren Gatland and his assistants would have been much further advanced in their data and thinking on all the potential candidates.
By contrast, when he asked his four assistants (and Andy Farrell) to name their 36-man squads less than a month ago, while they agreed on somewhere between 20 and 25 players, all told 57 names were submitted. Similarly wild discrepancies have occurred in various publications over recent days.
Yesterday’s final selection meeting will have been, one ventures, a long one.
By rights, Ireland should be looking at a healthy representation. After all, Ireland beat both England and Scotland, and finished above them in the Six Nations, while although Sunday’s semi-final was disappointing, Leinster still went further in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup than any other team in the four home countries.
Yet the absence of any Irish coach or member of the Irish ticket on the Lions’ coaching staff may well count against them, even if the same is true of England.
By comparison the Welsh have several voices, even if Robin McBryde will assuredly put forward the case for several Leinster forwards, not least their front-row contenders.
The Scots haven’t had such an input into a selection meeting since Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer included five Scottish players in the original 35-man squad for the tour to South Africa 20 years ago.
Not having had more than three players in the four tours since, Gregor Townsend especially and his Welsh assistant coach Steve Tandy will be lynched if they don’t deliver a stronger Scottish hand this time.
While Gatland may well have consulted Farrell too, there’s a palpable sense that Ireland will have their lowest number of players since the half dozen chosen for the 2001 tour to Australia, and even the four to South Africa four years previously.
The only Irish players you’d name with any degree of certainty are Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne and either one or both of James Ryan and Iain Henderson.
By rights Johnny Sexton should be on that list as well. He has huge credit in the bank from the last two tours, the Lions having lost only one of the five Tests he started.
If anything being stood down for six weeks after the whiplash concussion he suffered against Exeter could be a blessing for the Lions.
He’s also the form ‘10’ from the Six Nations, having guided Ireland to successive wins over Italy, Scotland and England, when playing 80 minutes in all of them, and comfortably played more minutes (310) at outhalf than Dan Biggar (294), Russell (284) and Farrell, who played England’s last four games at ‘12’. Sexton outscored the other three as well, landing 24 out of 25 kicks to finish as the tournament’s leading scorer.
There’s an element of ageism attached to the lack of durability theory, but for the Lions to have the best chance of winning the Test series then Sexton should go.
However, one fears this is where the make-up of the coaching ticket will come in, for it assuredly enhances the prospects of Finn Russell travelling. It’s very hard not to see Owen Farrell included despite a lack of form and although Dan Biggar was replaced by Callum Sheedy for Wales’ last four endgames, he produced his best performance of the Six Nations in their final game away to France. Kicking coach Neil Jenkins will most likely be a strong advocate of Biggar’s credentials.
Similarly, Josh Adams and Jonathan Davies did likewise that night and Adams’ return to predatory form may well see him included with Jacob Stockdale and Elliot Daly, despite offering a left-footed kicking option, missing out. It may well be that no Irish outside back makes the cut.
England having had a poor Six Nations, a striking feature of the last few days has been the campaign across the water on behalf of so many who did not play in that tournament.
But if one from that category is to be included it could be the versatile Jack Nowell. Four years ago Gatland admitted that if he could buy one player as a Premiership head coach, it would be Nowell.
George North’s injury could open a door for Garry Ringrose, albeit it could be closed by Chris Harris or Manu Tuilagi.
Rónan Kelleher has a chance, as does Rob Herring, but both might miss out, while Cian Healy and Andrew Porter have possibly even better chances, and in addition to Beirne of all the Irish backrowers CJ Stander might have the best hope of all, as he ticks a lot of the boxes Gatland will be looking to fill.
Prior to the squad’s announcement at 12.30, the captain will be revealed 20 minutes previously, and it will be a major shock if Alun Wyn Jones isn’t the chosen one on what would be his fourth tour.
Lions possible squad
Back three: S Hogg (Scotland), L Williams (Wales), A Watson (England), L Rees-Zammit (Wales), D van der Merwe (Scotland), J Adams (Wales).
Centres: R Henshaw (Ireland), H Slade (England), J Davies (Wales), C Harris (Scotland).
Halfbacks: C Murray (Ireland), G Davies (Wales), A Price (Scotland), D Biggar (Wales), F Russell (Scotland), O Farrell (England).
Props: W Jones (Wales), M Vunipola (England), C Healy (Ireland), T Furlong (Ireland), K Sinkler (England), T Francis (Wales).
Hookers: J George (England), K Owens (Wales), L Cowan-Dickie (England).
Secondrows: M Itoje (England), I Henderson (Ireland), J Gray (Scotland), A Wyn Jones (Wales, capt).
Backrows: T Beirne (Ireland), T Curry (England), J Tipuric (Wales), T Faletau (Wales), S Underhill (England), CJ Stander (Ireland).