Lions squad: Johnny Sexton left out as eight Irish players selected
Ryan and Ringrose also miss out while Conan and Porter make the squad
As is usually the case, Irish players, coaches and supporters will have mixed feelings with a representation of eight players in the 37-man British & Irish Lions squad announced today for the summer’s tour to South Africa.
It is certainly not the eight players many would have chosen.
Unsurprisingly, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw have made the cut, and so too have Andrew Porter and Iain Henderson, as well as, more surprisingly, Bundee Aki and Jack Conan.
However, Warren Gatland and his assistant coaches have left out James Ryan and Garry Ringrose, as well as the Leinster and Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, one of the undoubted heroes of both the 2013 and 2017 tours and indisputably the form outhalf of the Six Nations.
Instead, they have chosen Owen Farrell, short of form and predominantly used as an inside centre by England in the Six Nations, Finn Russell and Dan Biggar as their three outhalves.
A relatively shock omission is Ryan, as Jonny Hill and Henderson have been picked along with tour captain Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje. Beirne and Conan are the only Irish back five forwards chosen and, as was feared, no Irish outside backs have been selected.
Cian Healy is unlucky to miss out to Wyn Jones, Mako Vunipola and Rory Sutherland who is currently injured but has been selected.
Ronan Kelleher and Rob Herring missed out at hooker, where Ken Owens, Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie have been selected. Furlong and Porter are joined by Zander Fagerson as, surprisingly, Kyle Sinckler misses out after playing in all three Tests off the bench four years ago.
In addition to Beirne and Conan, the other loose forwards are Tom Curry, Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Toby Faletau and Sam Simmonds, who has been preferred to CJ Stander and Billy Vunipola among others, with Sam Underhill also missing out.
Simmonds, who was last year’s European Player of the Year and is the Premiership’s top try scorer with Exeter this season, won the last of his seven England caps in March 2018, with Eddie Jones preferring Vunipola at 8 for their last ten Tests.
Ali Price and Gareth Davies are the other scrumhalves chosen along with Murray.
The inclusion of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly has led to only three specialist centres being picked, namely Aki, Henshaw and Scotland’s Chris Harris, with Henry Slade, Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi also failing to make the cut in addition to Ringrose, in perhaps the most surprising aspect of the squad.
Alun Wyn Jones, the most capped player in the world with 157 appearances, has played in nine consecutive Lions Tests and will be embarking on his fourth tour.
No less than Sam Warburton in the first Test four years ago, the 35-year-old Jones will not be guaranteed of a starting place. He extends a tradition of lock forwards captaining the Lions in South Africa, following Willie John McBride (1974), Bill Beaumont (1980), Martin Johnson (1997) and Paul O’Connell (2009),
This squad was always likely to have a more even spread across the four countries, especially given Scotland’s improved showing in the Six Nations which included breakthrough wins away to England and France while the presence of Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy on the coaching ticket also helped.
Wales, the Six Nations champions, have 10 players and it is the sixth tour in a row that they are in double figures. England, despite finishing fifth and losing to all three of their Celtic rivals in the Six Nations, have the biggest contingent with 11 and Scotland eight, which is their highest allocation since the 1989 tour.
But Sexton’s omission is the most disappointing.
Despite being sidelined for six weeks with two concussive episodes this year, Sexton played the full 80 minutes in Ireland’s last three wins and played comfortably more minutes (310) at outhalf than Dan Biggar (294), Russell (284) and Farrell, who played just the first 69 minutes in the position against Scotland before switching to 12 for the last four games. Sexton also underlined his world-class goalkicking by landing 25 out of 26 kicks when finishing the Six Nations as the leading points scorer.
“We believe we’ve picked a squad capable of winning a Test series in South Africa,” said Gatland.
“Selecting a Lions squad is never easy and, in many ways, this has been the most challenging selection I have been involved in. Over the course of the last three weeks the coaches and I have rigorously debated each position. We saw some outstanding performances in the recent Six Nations, so competition for places has been tough with some incredibly tight calls to make.
“However, we are very happy with the squad we have assembled and look forward to meeting up in Jersey in just over a month’s time to start our preparation to take on the world champions. We’ve left out some very talented players which gives an indication to the strength of this squad and we know how important that standby list will be.
“Being selected for a Lions Tour is the greatest honour for a British and Irish player and I congratulate everyone named today.”
Lions squad for tour of South Africa
Backs: Josh Adams (Wales), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Chris Harris (Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ali Price (Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), Duhan Van Der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales).
Forwards: Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Jack Conan (Ireland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Tom Curry (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Jonny Hill (England), Maro Itoje (England), Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Ken Owens (Wales), Andrew Porter (Ireland), Sam Simmonds (England), Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Hamish Watson (Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, capt).