Lions squads have proved a moveable feast down the years
John O'Sullivan: Recent history shows that squad will number in the 40s by the end
Ireland prop Tom Court was visiting his parents in Brisbane in 2013 when he was called up as a replacement for the Lions Tour in Australia. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
There will be an expectation in Wales that representation in the Lions squad to tour South Africa this summer will reflect the 2021 Six Nations Championship table when head coach Warren Gatland confirms the touring party just after midday on Thursday.
The Welsh won four of their five matches and came agonisingly close to a Grand Slam before narrowly succumbing to France in Paris in the final round of fixtures.
Their anticipation is supported statistically based on the evidence of the last three Lions tours. However, in conducting a loose examination of projected squads in the British & Irish media of late and allowing for a dollop of subjectivity in selection, England, who finished fifth in the Six Nations with two wins, could end up with the single largest representation.
Historically the Six Nations champions in the years of the Lions tours in question command the highest percentage of the original squad selected, albeit acknowledging that in 2009 by the time the team departed for South Africa, Wales has usurped Ireland’s primacy in numbers terms. In 2009, 38 per cent of the original squad was Irish, in 2013, 41 per cent was Welsh and in 2017, 39 per cent was English.
Gatland has been involved in the three tours under scrutiny, as an assistant coach to Ian McGeechan in 2009 – the Springboks won the Tests 2-1 – and head coach in Australia (2013), where his team prevailed 2-1 in the Tests and in New Zealand (2017), when the tourists managed a very creditable drawn series (1-1).
Ireland won a Grand Slam under Declan Kidney in 2009, the initial reward to be bulk suppliers to the original squad but injuries to Tomás O’Leary and Jerry Flannery and Alan Quinlan’s suspension reduced that representation. Scotland’s Mike Blair and Ross Ford, along with England and Leicester Tigers flanker Tom Croft – he was outstanding on that tour – were called in prior to departure, so too James Hook.
Fellow Welshmen Tom Shanklin and Leigh Halfpenny also withdrew from the original squad due to injury, although the latter would join the touring party in South Africa a couple of weeks after the main party’s arrival; the upshot that just under 11 per cent of the first squad announced didn’t travel.
Those examples illustrate the capricious nature of injuries so even for those whose names are announced today there is still almost six weeks of competitive rugby in the English Premiership and Rainbow Cup to negotiate before the Lions squad convenes on the island of Jersey for a 10-day training camp ahead of a warm-up game against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26th.
In 2013 Dylan Hartley missed the tour following a suspension, sent off for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes in the English Premiership final. He was replaced by Ulster and Ireland hooker Rory Best. Four years later Ben Youngs withdrew after the wife of his brother, Tom, was diagnosed with cancer. England number eight Billy Vunipola was forced out through injury and replaced by James Haskell.
The average number of replacements required during a Lions tour once it has begun because of injuries from 2009-2017 was six players. Ireland’s John Hayes and Gordon D’Arcy, Ryan Jones (Wales) and Tim Payne (England) were flown out to South Africa 12 years ago.
Four years later eight players were required to supplement the squad in Australia: Tom Court, Alex Corbisiero, Ryan Grant, Brad Barritt, Christian Wade, Billy Twelvetrees, Shane Williams and Simon Zebo. Brisbane-born Court, having played in Ireland’s northern American tour, decided to stop off to catch up with family and was in Australia when he received his call-up.
In 2017, Gatland called up four Welsh players – Corey Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Thomas Francis – who were in Auckland having played a Test match for Wales against Tonga and Allan Dell and Finn Russell who were in Australia with Scotland after five of the original Lions squad suffered tour-ending injuries.
It was an expediency-driven decision to supplement the squad with players in the same time zone rather than summon England and Ireland players from tours of Argentina and Japan respectively.
So although Gatland’s initial squad for the nine matches, eight in South Africa and the warm-up game against Japan in Edinburgh, may number 36 or 37 players it is likely to expand to the mid 40s based on the injury profile of the last three tours: cumulatively seven players from the original Lions squads over the past 12 years didn’t make it to the plane while a further 18 players were required because of injury.