Lions squad ticks more boxes than its 2013 equivalent
Gatland has real strength in depth, with Ringrose among a number of hard-luck stories
When Warren Gatland and his fellow Lions coaches finally sat down and went through the 41 players they’d settled upon after a final selection meeting that lasted about three hours in their London hotel on Tuesday, they clearly believed they had ticked plenty of boxes.
Their positive energy and optimism concerning perhaps this most daunting of Lions tours was palpable at Wednesday’s glitzy squad announcement in the Hilton London Syon Park hotel in Middlesex, and setting aside the inevitable partisanship which comes with selecting the pick of the four countries, one can see why.
For sure there will be grievances, not least Irish despite having a healthy contingent of 11 players. Garry Ringrose is possibly the unluckiest of Ireland’s hard luck stories, for strictly on Six Nations form this season he eclipsed Jonathan Joseph and one or two others. Following on from reports that Joseph would not make the cut, the way Gatland revealed he had insisted the English outside centre’s footwork and pace had always troubled Wales and thus should be included, suggests that may have been a late change of heart.
“There was a long debate in terms of the midfield,” admitted Gatland. “Someone like Garry Ringrose was very unlucky to miss out. He’s had a good Six Nations and he’ll learn from that. Andy Farrell thinks that in six months’ time, he’s someone that’s going to be incredibly special. I can assure there was some lively debate about some of the final selections.”
The Scots will be most aggrieved of all; they have only two players.
Certainly Nicola Sturgeon’s case for another referendum won’t have been harmed. Then again, if they complain about their lack of a voice amongst the selection meetings, the Scottish RFU twice rejected overtures from the Lions to have Gregor Townsend on board. In any case, the Lions coaches would have been acutely aware of their tiny contingent, and it’s hard to make a compelling case for any of their absent numbers, perhaps save for Johnny Gray.
For the third tour running, Dylan Hartley emulates Steve Borthwick and Chris Robshaw as being an in-situ England captain who didn’t make the squad. Wasps, atop the Premiership, have only one player, and are officially “gobsmacked” about Joe Launchbury’s exclusion.
The Welsh, with a dozen after finishing fifth in the Six Nations, can have few complaints. No doubt much will be made of the inclusion of four Welsh backrowers and three Irish loose forwards.
Is that bias? Or is it just acknowledging the best players? More the latter surely.
Jared Payne is assuredly the most surprising Irish inclusion. Ironically, Gatland released Payne from Waikato in his one year coaching his native province, whereupon Payne relocated to Northland and re-launched his career.
The New Zealand-born, naturalised Ulster and Ireland player offers one of the squad’s most prized commodities – versatility. But such has been his profound influence on Ireland’s performances that he has invariably been involved in their biggest wins, be it over the three Southern Hemisphere sides and England in the last 12 months, or France in the World Cup, whereas his absence has been keenly felt for some of the more disappointing losses – such as the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina or indeed this season’s defeats to Scotland and Wales.
Indeed, those wins stood to the Irish contingent, as eight of the 11 started in the win over the All Blacks in Chicago, while Seán O’Brien also had a big game in the return meeting in Dublin, and nine of the 11 started the win over England.
That was the day Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony assuredly staked their claim for inclusion in this Lions squad. Henderson not only had a big game that day, but would have impressed the Lions coaches, and especially Steve Borthwick, in the manner he called the lineouts.
In the heel of the hunt, Jamie Heaslip’s injury in the warm-up against England not only put paid to his chances, but opened the door for his late replacement, O’Mahony. Again, his lineout work, both offensively and defensively, would have impressed Borthwick and co, and he’s backed that up with huge games for Munster.
Competition for Test places
Ultimately, that there are way more hard luck stories than four years ago underlines the improved strength in depth of this squad compared to the Australian odyssey when, by comparison, Gatland felt there were a few players who were “just happy to be there”. This in turn should feed into what the Lions head coach believes will be significantly greater competition for Test places.
As Gatland stated, the squad contains an array of tight-five forwards who are not only proven to be proficient at set-piece time, but can match the famed mobility and ball-handling skills of the New Zealanders.
There is also a plethora of ball-carriers amongst the loose forwards, and one can make a case for about a dozen of the 22 forwards for whom ball-carrying is a proven asset. These forwards can take the game to the Kiwis.
As well as plenty of versatility and experience, these Lions look to be in the prime of their careers, Gatland noting that the average age of the forwards is 26 and of the backs 26½. Those backs contain several players with the game-breaking abilities. They also have four world-class goal-kickers, with back-up from three or four others, and Gatland again cited how Beauden Barrett is currently not kicking for the Hurricanes.
Last but not least, Gatland noted how the English and the Celts often don’t have the impact off the bench to live with the All Blacks, but now this squad has an array of players who have proven their ability as replacements. All in all, with one or two misgivings such as Ringrose, it looks like a good squad.