Prior to assembling in their London hotel this week, Warren Gatland asked his four assistant coaches to name their squads of 36 players for the proposed Lions tour to South Africa this summer.
About 20 to 25 were unanimously pencilled in, but that was out of 50-plus players in total and come Monday’s first four-hour selection meeting, the names of 57 players were discussed.
The squad, set to be announced on May 6th, is likely to have a greater spread than four years ago, when the 41 players initially chosen to tour New Zealand featured 16 English, a dozen from Wales, 11 Irish and two Scottish.
However England have just finished fifth in the Six Nations after losing to Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the same year for the first time since 1976. Meanwhile Scotland won in Twickenham and Paris for the first time since 1983 and 1999 respectively.
Furthermore, two of Warren Gatland's assistants are the Scottish head coach Gregor Townsend, who will be overseeing the Lions' attack, and their defence coach Steve Tandy.
“There will definitely be more Scots this time because they have fronted up in the Six Nations,” Gatland said yesterday.
“Winning away in Paris and at Twickenham is significant because when you are playing for the Lions you are not playing at home. Four years ago what was probably damaging to the Scottish players is that you go down to Twickenham and you get 50 points put on you. That’s not a good look.
“There’s no doubt that there are a number of Scottish players who have definitely impressed us in this campaign.”
Tandy is one of three Welshmen on the ticket along with Leinster forwards coach Robin McBryde and kicking coach Neil Jenkins, a veteran of five tours as a player or coach and a teammate of Townsend's for the series win in South Africa 24 years ago.
As Six Nations champions, Wales are likely to be well represented again, with Alun Wyn Jones favourite to be captain on what would be his fourth Lions tour.
Two other contenders would be Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, also candidates again for the three outhalf slots.
“Johnny is obviously very much in the mix,” said Townsend. “It’s a very strong position with players at the top of their game at a good age. Finn Russell is 28 I think, Dan Biggar is a bit older and Farrell is a similar age and Sexton is older but with a lot of experience who played really well against Scotland. So there’s real depth there at ‘10’ with plenty more discussions to come.”
Other factors are weighing against English players. Ala Ireland, they’ve no coaches on the ticket, and their Saracens core suffered in the Six Nations for being relegated to the Championship, albeit they have pedigree.
“There’s no doubt that some of those players didn’t have the greatest Six Nations this year, but a lot of them have credit from past successes – whether it’s winning in Europe, winning the Six Nations, performing well at World Cups or on previous Lions tours as well,” said Gatland.
“It’s probably not like it was 12 months ago where some of them would have been the first names on the sheet. Now you’re having a discussion about them and it’s a good discussion to have, in terms of knowing what they can do and what they’ve done in the past.”
In addition, there has still been no resolution to the dispute between the Lions and Premiership Rugby to have the latter’s final on June 26th moved forward so as to avoid clashing with the Lions’ scheduled warm-up game against Japan in Murrayfield on the same date.
Gatland plans to have a two-week camp in Jersey before the Japan game and if PRL do not permit “16 to 20 English-based players” from being available for that camp then, as he said, “unfortunately some of those players may miss out”.
“I think the Lions are talking to the PRL this week and I’m just hoping we’ll get some resolution. It’s a big one for us that when those players are finished with their clubs, they are available to us.”
Ireland’s strong finish to the Six Nations allied to Leinster’s win in Exeter and their continuing involvement in the Heineken Champions Cup won’t harm their players’ chances.
This is particularly so of the front-rowers and McBryde, the Leinster forwards coach, confirmed that Ronan Kelleher was one of the names discussed on Monday.
“You look at that World Cup final against England where the scrum played a pivotal role really in the outcome of the game. First and foremost the front-row have to be able to scrummage. As much as you want them to do the added extras of being able to carry ball or defend well, I think we need to put the set-piece first,” said McBryde, who also cited Ireland’s scrummaging performance against England.
“We need to have that in depth as well when you think about the way that South Africa managed their playing squad during the World Cup, and being able to keep six forwards on the bench. I don’t see that changing, so we need to get the big rocks in first as it were.”
Asked which area provoked the most debate, McBryde said: “The back row. The back row was the most discussion I think. To be fair there was quite a bit to talk about everywhere, but yeah the back row and getting that mix, that balance right, the all-round game – obviously lineout ability is huge, contact ability is huge, skill set.
“But the positive thing is, the quality of the players that were on those sheets makes you so excited really.”