Lions 2017: A player-by-player guide to Gatland's squad
Gavin Cummiskey profiles the 41-men charged with the task of taking it to the All Blacks
British and Irish Lions team captain Sam Warburton training with Rory Best. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Glasgow Warriors and Scotland. DOB: 24/6/1992. Height: 1.80m (5’ 11’’). Weight: 100kg (15st 10lbs). – Potential exists to surpass Gavin Hastings as Scotland’s greatest Lion since Ian McGeechan. Remains a defensive liability (by New Zealand standards) but still expected to celebrate his 25th birthday as the Lions fullback in the first test, mainly due to lightning acceleration displayed en route to becoming Six Nations player of the tournament. Devours the merest hint of space – see Ireland’s Murrayfield defeat – with the armoury completed by a huge right boot and distribution skills of a decent outhalf, where he featured on the 2013 tour.
Toulon and Wales. DOB: 22/12/1988. Height: 1.78m (5’ 10’’). Weight: 87kg (13st 9lbs). – The points machine. If Warrenball is on the menu, then Hogg could be benched for the Welshman who in 2013 replicated the achievement of Neil Jenkins in 1997 – the kicking coach on this tour – by racking up the Lions' share of points in the 2-1 series victory over Australia. Displays similar defensive concerns as Hogg – Savea or Fekitoa can run over them – and while his form for Toulon has stuttered this season he remains one of Gatland’s boys so that guarantees scope to prove his worth.
Ulster and Ireland. DOB: 13/10/1985. Height: 1.88m (6’2’’). Weight: 95kg (14st 13lbs). – Unexpected homecoming despite a chronic injury profile – only 17 Ulster games since the 2015 World Cup, which suggests unlikely sustainability into July. Seventeen of his 20 Ireland caps have been at 13 until a lacerated kidney forced a clearing for Garry Ringrose, who Gatland didn’t feel was good enough to tour, but maybe the fact Payne’s a Kiwi, and possesses an innate ability where to be, in attack and defence, was enough to create the ultimate dirt tracker. Maybe the guaranteed body count will provide an opportunity, providing he avoids swinging arms from former teammates having ran for the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues in another lifetime.
Bath (free agent) and England. DOB: 26/2/1994. Height: 1.84m (6’0)”. Weight: 94kg (14st 11lbs). – Outstanding in the air and with electrifying pace, Watson’s timely return from injury with a try off the bench as Scotland were crushed at Twickenham could surf him onto the right wing come June 24th in Auckland. The free agent has accumulated 13 tries in 26 England caps and possesses enough natural talent to return home a superstar. Could end up playing fullback, if not against New Zealand, but come the World Cup campaign in Japan.
Scarlets and Wales. DOB: 9/4/1991. Height: 1.88m (6’ 2’’). Weight: 86kg (13st 7lbs). – JPR reborn? Williams made a compelling case for a test berth with some swashbuckling runs on a tour of New Zealand last summer (he tore through the All Blacks before fending off Israel Dagg for a sensational try). Abrasive, gangly counter-attacker, he embodies Gatland’s prototype winger. So effective that Saracens have snatched him away from the Scarlets as an upgrade on Toulon-bound Chris Ashton. Brilliant in the air, he’s in a three-way shootout with Watson and North for that 14 jersey. Form will decide.
Wasps and England. DOB: 8/10/1992. Height: 1.82m (6’ 0”). Weight: 97kg (15st 3lbs). – Preferred over Gary Ringrose. Quality centre at club level, Eddie Jones got value from him at left wing during the Six Nations, where his pace exposed Alex Cuthbert in Cardiff. He’s an ideal number 23 come the second or third tests if the power option of launching Ben Te’o off the bench doesn’t work out. Otherwise, unless he nails down outside centre, he looks like a Tuesday man.
Northampton Saints and Wales. DOB: 13/4/1992. Height: 1.93m (6’ 4’’). Weight: 108kg (17st). – After shining on the 2013 Lions tour, matching Wallaby sensation Israel Folau for physicality and impact, North was in a straight fight with Julian Savea for the title of world’s best winger. An epic career was stalled by a string of horrendous concussions and he was badly out of sorts against England in February before all concerns were allayed by a ruthlessly efficient display in the victory over Ireland. Still only 25, he has amassed phenomenal numbers with 32 tries in 71 tests. A certain starter, providing he avoids another head blow.
Glasgow Warriors and Scotland. DOB: 1/6/1988. Height: 1.83m (6’ 0’’). Weight: 94kg (14st 11lbs). – Ulster reject, Lions tourist, loves an intercept. Only man from the 2007 Ireland under-19s squad playing test match rugby. Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, a Glaswegian mother allowed him further his career with Scotland after he failed to make the cut in Belfast. 16 tries in 36 Scotland appearances, including some excellent aerial displays and telepathic understanding with Hogg, convinced Gatland to pick him ahead of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. He’s bigger than both Munster men.
Exeter Chiefs and England. DOB: 11/4/1993. Height: 1.80m (5’11”). Weight: 98kg (15st 6lbs). – Son of a Cornish trawlerman, Nowell hails from Newlyn, an ancient fishing town, on the furthest reach of south-west England – a region know for rearing props like Phil Vickery not wingers. Patella tendinitis almost derailed his ascent from rugby obscurity but corrective surgery allows him step off either foot (England capped him when he could only dance off his right). A strike rate of 11 tries in 23 tests is reinforced by some impressive defensive trairts. Squeezed out of the England XV by Watson and Daly for the failed Grand Slam bid in Dublin but he’s shown enough potential, along with a ravenous workrate, to become the breakthrough artist on this tour. Odds are against him but that’s always been the case.
Bath and England. DOB: 21/5/1991. Height: 1.83m (6’0”). Weight: 95kg (14st 13lbs). – The strike runner must be a test match certainty, right? Not really. Looks the complete 13 ghosting onto a pass or into space or just skinning his man, and the hat-trick against Scotland at Twickenham was deemed world class. Shame about the defending. JJ must address clears flaws in his tackle technique before Andy Farrell trusts him with what’s potentially the most important role of all. Another superstar or flop, no middle ground.
Scarlets and Wales. DOB: 5/4/1988. Height: 1.86m (6’ 1’’). Weight: 103kg (16st 3lbs). – The impression, at this moment, is that Gatland will keep faith with the man he backed four years ago when dropping Brian O’Driscoll. His experiences at inside centre from 2013, a chest crushing hand-off, and left foot kicking option all lend weight to a conservative selection policy. Injury ruined his World Cup in 2015 while the switch to Clermont Auvergne didn’t work out but he’s been an everpresent for Wales this season. Competing with Joseph (and Henshaw?) for the 13 jersey should make for some vicious training sessions.
Leinster and Ireland. DOB: 12/6/1993. Height: 1.90m (6’3”). Weight: 102kg (16st). – Besides Sam Cane’s belt last November, Henshaw has pulled himself from underneath a heap of punishment as Joe Schmidt’s Ireland use him as an introductory attacking weapon whenever CJ Stander or Sean O’Brien are scrummaging, leaping or lifting. Defensively relentless enough to make the 12 jersey his own every Saturday on tour. Should Gatland go with, say, the Owen Farrell/Johnny Sexton playmaking combination, Henshaw could take up residency at outside centre. Whoever, if anyone, keeps him out of the test side will need to be playing exceptional rugby. Don’t break him Warren! Ireland needs him more than any other player.
Worcester Warriors and England. DOB: 27/1/1987. Height: 1.88m (6’2”). Weight: 106kg (16st 9lbs). – Any anorak, from the southern or northern hemisphere, wants to see Te’o and Sonny Bill Williams discard rugby union etiquette. Could happen against the Blues on June 7th. There’s a misconception out there that the former Leinster midfielder is attempting a Sam Burgess-type code cross. Incorrect. Te’o’s upbringing was union in Auckland, before becoming an elite NRL warrior. Also, he’s half Samoan and has played State of Origin. Throw all that unsettled history into the last 20 minutes of a test match at Eden Park and all hell should break loose.
Saracens and England . DOB: 24/9/1991. Height: 1.86m (6’1”). Weight: 93kg (14st 9lbs). – “I’m an outhalf.” The European player of the year is not touring to shadow the main man. The 12 jersey works for England but that won’t last much longer as Farrell’s excellence in all facets of first-five-eight play sees him scaling the Sexton peaks. Also, playing inside centre early on tour, to sync with Sexton’s rhythm, runs the risk of Farrell featuring only once as the starting 10 in an international fixture since the 2015 World Cup (versus the Wallabies last summer). The probability of Sexton staying healthy is unlikely. Flip-flopping would be a mistake that Ireland under Declan Kidney made at the 2011 World Cup. The best outhalf must start every Saturday. The other sits down.
Leinster and Ireland. DOB: 11/7/1985. Height: 1.88m (6’2”). Weight: 93kg (14st 9lbs). – At the zenith of his formidable powers. It could be the influence of Andy Farrell (or Stuart Lancaster) but Sexton’s tackle technique seems less kamikaze. Of course he’s susceptible to a relapse but, so long as the hamstrings stay tuned and his creaking upper body isn’t unhinged, at least one test match can come under his spell. Farrell could be the ideal closer, once Sexton’s boot and tactical acumen builds a two-score lead but room exists for one alpha 10.
Ospreys and Wales. DOB: 16/10/1989. Height: 1.85m (6’ 1’’). Weight: 93kg (14st 9lbs). – Almost lost his position for club and country due to the rise of Sam Davies. But here he is, deservedly. Saracens and Leinster losing their respective semi-finals means the Ospreys man won’t get a head start against the New Zealand Barbarians. Deserving tourist, nothing more.
Munster and Ireland. DOB: 20/4/1989. Height: 1.88m (6’2’’). Weight: 94kg (14st 11lbs). – Glasgow backrowers targeting his standing leg seemed filthy but there’s far worse coming down the tracks. Murray may not possess the rounded repertoire of Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara but he’s the only scrumhalf operating on the same calm plateau, amid a hurricane of viciousness, as these magnificent yet smaller nines. Until nerve damage, suffered tackling George North last March, nobody in England, Wales or Scotland was controlling games like him, and he’ll always have that flawless Chicago rhythm to tap along to. FYI: 10 tries in 59 tests. Beware the show and go.
Clermont-Auvergne and Scotland. DOB: 12/10/1985. Height: 1.75m (5’ 9”). Weight: 80kg (12st 8lbs) – Ben Youngs’s sniping will be sorely missed but the Scottish captain would’ve been disappointed to miss out initially after an ankle injury during the Six Nations scuppered any chance. He brings a valuable place-kicking option and proved in victory over Ireland last February to be one of the cleverest generals in this part of the world. Clermont agree, prising him away from Gloucester where he’ll probably understudy for the great (and younger) Morgan Parra.
Ospreys and Wales. DOB: 9/12/1988. Height: 1.83m (6’ 0’’). Weight: 92kg (14st 6lbs). – One of nine returning Welshmen from the 3-0 series thumping in New Zealand last summer. In the first test, he ran his usual clever support line to profit from Liam Williams’s searing break to finish off the score which put Wales into an 18-15 lead (they led until the 63rd minute). No Lions tour would be complete without the threat of Wales’s finest attacking scrumhalf but looks to be competing with Laidlaw for the bench.
Leinster and Ireland. DOB: 11/10/1989. Height: 1.82m (6’ 0’’). Weight: 120kg (18st 12lbs). – Leinster have produced some great loosehead Lions – Phil Orr featured once against New Zealand in ’77 while Nick Popplewell started all three tests in ’93. McGrath can become the best of all. The St Mary’s stalwart has similar exposure to his English rivals for the one jersey, but the fact he remained the 50-minute prop despite Cian Healy’s return to form and full fitness, provides enough evidence to make him favourite to start the first test, probably against Owen Franks, who he competently locked horns with twice last year. The 27-year-old has proven himself able to live with any opponent, well into double figures scrums, all the while making 15-plus tackles, barrelling through a dozen rucks and motoring for 60-70-80 minutes.
Harlequins and England. DOB: 7/7/1990. Height: 1.83m (6’0”). Weight: 114kg (17st 13lbs). – Passed out in the English pecking order by Vunipola, he showed enough during the Six Nations, while his Saracens rival was injured, to send Healy on tour of US and Japan. Tough yet understandable call considering the multiple surgeries Healy has undergone these past four seasons, in what has become a cautionary tale for any young prop. With 51 tests for England since his debut in 2012, Marler’s no mug. Loves a tweet. Third choice.
Saracens and England. DOB: 13/1/1991. Height: 1.83m (6’0”). Weight: 121kg (19st). – Patiently waited behind Marler, much like McGrath did with Healy, winning 30 of his 45 caps off the bench until promotion to the England XV late last year but he returns with the experience of three Lions appearances against Australia in 2013, when still only 22. Enormous power and a wide range of skills alien to normal props, Vunipola should be the grenade in Gatland’s hand come the last quarter. Pull the pin and let fly. If used properly the Lions bench can win them the series.
Leinster and Ireland. DOB: 14/11/1992. Height: 1.83m (6’0”). Weight: 123kg (19st 5lbs). – Many moons from now, after what hopefully proves the epic career of Tadhg Furlong, Reeling In The Years will have to show the rampaging son of Campile bumping Brodie Retallick (twice) and Owen Franks before slamming All Black captain Kieran Read on his arse for the greatest three-metre gain in the history of Irish rugby. Furlong has carried that form through the entire Leinster and Ireland season with the development of Andrew Porter looking vital to helping him avoid an injury profile like Cian Healy. This will be a punishing tour with his usage potentially enormous. Do the math: with two high velocity games a week, the three touring tightheads will almost certainly rack up 80 minutes apiece. More if Gatland feels Dan Cole needs minding.
Leicester and England. DOB: 9/5/1987. Height: 1.89m (6’2”). Weight: 120kg (18st 12lbs). – One of nine tourists in his thirties. Until Furlong’s seemingly unstoppable rise, the Leicester bruiser was the nailed on test starter. Should still grind his way into the test side as his ability to damage the New Zealand scrum could prove more beneficial with Wexford’s finest and Vunipola bowling into the fray around the 50-minute mark. Either way, having amassed 77 caps since 2010, Cole remains a hugely important figure if the Lions are to remain competitive never mind successful. A heavyweight scrum battle with Joe Moody awaits.
Harlequins and England. DOB: 30/3/1993. Height: 1.80m (5’11”). Weight: 122kg (19st 2lbs). – A babe in propping years and experience with all eight England caps coming this season off the bench. Granted, he carries that 19 stone frame around like it’s no trouble at all and has serious pace but, realistically, no team can afford to enter a test series against the All Blacks with a pair of 24-year-old tightheads with 24 caps between them. New Zealand is no country for young props on the same side of the scrum. Then again, maybe he’ll do to Moody what Paul Wallace did to Os du Randt in 1997.
Ulster and Ireland. DOB: 15/8/1982. Height: 1.80m (5’11”).Weight: 106kg (16st 9lbs). – Dylan Hartley’s misdemeanours paved the way for Best to be the starting hooker. That and 104 test matches. The oldest tourist is desperate to atone for his dodgy throwing in 2013, that being the only obvious stain in the latter part of this fine 12 year international innings that has seen him become one of the most successful Ireland captains ever (beating all three southern hemisphere nations in 2016 secures that accolade even if they lost the Springbok series 2-1 and New Zealand brutalised his team into submission in Dublin).
Scarlets and Wales. DOB: 3/1/1987. Height: 1.84m (6’ 0’’). Weight: 108kg (17st). – The choirmaster on tour, this may help drown out the neverending yelps and gurgling from the haka jukebox. A solid hooker out of Carmarthen, Owens has been knocking around the Welsh squad since 2011 but only nailed down the two jersey in New Zealand last summer. Presumably, Gatland, who spent his entire career waiting in vain for Sean Fitzpatrick to pull up, recognises the mental toughness needed to provide added value from the reserves.
Saracens and England. DOB: 20/10/1990. Height: 1.83m (6’0”). Weight: 110kg (17st 4lbs). – Selected completely on merit having out-classed and out-performed Hartley when replacing the England captain throughout the Six Nations, while also forcing Schalk Brits out of the Saracens XV. No mean feat that. Possesses the best lineout stats in the English Premiership and has proved himself a specialist impact player in all 17 caps. Decent hands and punchy ball carrier, George has won every possible club and national honour in the northern hemisphere.
Ulster and Ireland. DOB: 21/2/1992. Height: 1.98m (6’6’’). Weight: 118kg (18st 8lbs). – A typical Henderson performance in victory over England last March secured his plane ticket. Phenomenal talent visible ever since bullying Baby Boks at the Junior World Cup in South Africa in 2012, his physicality somewhat softened the blow when Ulster lost Stephen Ferris to injury. Initially at least, he looks set for a shadow role as Maro Itoje is primed the fill the hybrid flanker/lock slot that enables Gatland to unleash two impact backrowers from the bench (one of whom could be Henderson).
Saracens and England. DOB: 28/10/1992. Height: 1.95m (6’5”). Weight: 117kg (18st 5lbs). – Youngest but most important Lion. There is a growing suspicion this freak athlete is actually a cyborg assassin sent back from 2029 to alter the All Black monopoly of rugby union after northern hemisphere scientists discover time travel. Itoje has already shown glimpses of being Brodie Retallick’s equal, of curtailing Sam Cane’s breakdown supremacy, of denying Kieran Read’s uncanny ability to steal back restarts, and he might tweak the timing of late tackles – as seen in Dublin – to obliterate Beauden Barrett. All hail Maro.
Saracens and England. DOB: 22/2/1990. Height: 1.98m (6’6”). Weight: 117kg 18st 5lbs). – The value of a tighthead scrummager in New Zealand winter cannot be overstated. After missing the Six Nations through injury, Gatland knew to include the 27-year-old in his touring party at the expense of Joe Launchbury despite the starting Wasps lock outstanding form. It helps that Steve Borthwick mentored Kruis straight out of school in the Saracens academy. His grunt work allows Itoje to focus on stealing ball. Having watched the damage Saracens inflicted on Munster and then Clermont in the closing stages of Europe, the pair of them seem like essential inclusions if the Lions are to negate the influence of Reatllick and Sam Whitelock.
Alun Wyn Jones
Ospreys and Wales. DOB: 19/9/1985. Height: 1.98m (6’ 6’’). Weight: 118kg (18st 8lbs). – The Lions captain for the series clincher in Australia, he could still end up leading the Lions out beside Kieran Read. Six of his 116 caps have been in Lions red (four starts). With that sort of experience it’s logical for Gatland to put Itoje on the blindside because Wyn Jones (31) remains at the height of his considerable powers, as the Irish lineout discovered in Cardiff. During the spring his presence meant Warburton was freed from the Wales captaincy to focus on rediscovering optimum form.
Northampton and England. DOB: 23/2/1989. Height: 2.01m (6’7”). Weight: 115kg (18st 1lbs). – Destructive. Another going on merit, having flung his considerable frame into all-comers all season. A bone shuddering enforcer (he made 70 tackles during the Six Nations), he will soften up any All Black Steve Hansen releases to the Super Rugby sides for the early fixtures. Finally reaching full potential, he seems like the ideal tourist and trustworthy in the event that one of these other superb locks go down.
Bath and Wales. DOB: 12/11/1990. Height: 1.92m (6’ 4’’). Weight: 109kg (17st 2lbs). – Son of Tongan international Kuli Faletau, his son’s physicality saw Jamie Heaslip dropped from the third Lions test in 2013 as Gatland went with his Welsh players over Irish in some big selection calls. A proven international No 8 since his brilliant displays at the 2011 World Cup, and still only 26, injury this season opened the door for Ross Moriarty but injury to Billy Vunipola paves the way for a key role once again.
Wasps and England. DOB: 2/4/1985. Height: 1.93m (6’ 4”). Weight: 120kg (18st 12lbs). – The constant joker, seemingly, he likes the occasional nude pose. Utterly ineffective for England against the Ireland backrow in Dublin last March. Jamie Heaslip’s first ever serious injury comes at the worst time imaginable. Haskell’s personality may prove a unifying force on this tour and despite his unquestioned physicality, he isn’t good enough to feature in the test series.
Gloucester and Wales. DOB: 18/4/1994. Height: 1.90m (6’ 3’’). Weight: 106kg (16st lbs). – English born, Welsh blood. Take a look at the Wales v England game and see the smashing hits Moriarty dispensed on Owen Farrell (late), Itoje (who grimaced in pain) and Nathan Hughes. All in the space of six violent minutes. Then Gatland replaced him with Faletau. Must have made his mind up. Just as the 29-year-old Dan Lydiate fades from the scene, with a body fractured by collisions, along comes this 23-year-old hard man. His father Paul, a Welsh international lock, switched codes to play for Widnes so he was nurtured in the English underage system and captained by Itoje when they beat South Africa in the 2014 Junior World Cup final. Thereafter, the Welsh reclaimed their own.
Munster and Ireland. DOB: 5/4/1990. Height: 1.88m (6’2”). Weight: 114kg (17st 13lbs). – If any doubt existed about bringing this brute force of nature then his Six Nations statistics – 104 carries for 234 metres along with three turnovers and three tries – laid them to rest. Stander will feature prominently on tour, he always does, and there’s unfinished business after being sparked by Israel Dagg in the Dublin game last November, with his versatility seeming like the ideal impact beast come the serious minutes in Eden Park. A rejected Springbok, there will be no fear of that place.
Munster and Ireland. DOB: 17/9/1989. Height: 1.91m (6’3”). Weight: 106kg (16st 9lbs). – “Seánie, we need you. Up! Up!” the Munster flanker roared to the Leinster flanker as England pounded into the Ireland defence. A damaged O’Brien got up instantly. That’s the power of leadership. Presumably starts as the Tuesday captain and we’ll go from there. It would have been a damn shame if the man who keeps Irish rugby honest missed out on at least one Lions tour but he couldn’t find a way back into the Ireland squad last November as Schmidt settled for Josh van der Flier off the bench for the established trio of Heaslip-O’Brien-Stander. Moments before the English game Heaslip went down so O’Mahony arrived to change plenty of preconceived notions about the Lions pecking order. He’s still barely on the list but what sane man would bet against him, allied by his superb jumping ability, forcing his way into the test 23 at some stage. Or die trying.
Cardiff and Wales. DOB: 5/10/1988. Height: 1.90m (6’ 3’’). Weight: 103kg 16st 3lbs). – Rarely impressive in a Cardiff Blues jersey, he seems to be injured more often than not, this two-tour Lions captain is hard to find during a test match. But go back and study the Welsh victory over Ireland in Cardiff. With six on his back, he made 21 tackles (one more than Tipuric) in a trademark punishing performance that allowed others to shine. Deserves the right to challenge Sam Cane for the vacant openside throne but first needs to see off Tipuric and O’Brien. If fully fit, Gatland picks him.
Ospreys and Wales. DOB: 6/8/1989. Height: 1.88m (6’ 2’’). Weight: 101kg (15st 12lbs). – Cursed by his era, 27 of his 52 caps have been from the reserves, but in the past two seasons Wales have felt the need to start him, with or without Warburton, such is his unrelenting engine. He made 84 tackles (three turnovers) during the Six Nations. Warburton only hit 78 (seven clean turnovers). Itoje only nailed 73 mortals (nine turnovers).
Leinster and Ireland. DOB: 14/2/1987. Height: 1.88m (6’2”). Weight: 108kg (17st). – Always injured so travelling on reputation. A mini-rampage against Wasps appears to have swung the last ticket but such was Rhys Ruddock’s form (not to mention Dan Leavy, Jack Conan and van der Flier), O’Brien was close to being dropped by Leinster. But what a back catalogue he boasts against these All Blacks. After matching Richie McCaw throughout that agonising defeat in 2013, the Kiwis added a third “O” to the O’Driscoll and O’Connell “Ireland will put-it-up-you” mantra. Three years later – the Dublin game as he missed Chicago through, as usual, a lack of fitness – the Tullow farmer reinforced the levels of respect he’s earned from dwellers in the land of the long white cloud.