What should Gatland do? Our rugby writers pick their Lions squads
It’s nearly decision time for the Lions coach - who should make the South Africa tour?
It is nearly decision time for Warren Gatland. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty
The parameters are different from four years ago. Back then, in those wild, crazy, pre-pandemic days, Warren Gatland was permitted to bring a 41-man squad, which was supplemented by the so-called Geography Six as he sought to protect his front-liners for the last two Tests. Amid all the furore, it worked too. The Lions won the second Test and drew the third.
However, New Zealand was a longer tour (10 matches compared to eight), and a longer haul. The Lions were also more flush with cash.
The chosen 36 will have to be fairly match-fit, hardened and ready to go, not on the road back with little game time.
Alas, this probably rules out, for example, Caelan Doris, whose end-of-year form must have propelled him into consideration. The same applies to others who might otherwise have made the cut, such as Manu Tuilagi, despite being something of a cause célèbre across the water.
Proven Lions pedigree has to be mixed with an infusion of newcomers, first who have shown their mettle at Test level, however recently, ie Louis Rees-Zammit, who is riding the crest of a wave. Versatility is a bonus, although most good Test players have an element of that in their make-up.
A 20-16 split seems right, starting with three hookers, and six props, although with that versatility in mind, Andrew Porter’s ability to pack down on both sides is a string to his bow.
This allows for four or five locks and six or seven loose forwards, which ideally would include one, and possibly two, players who can play in both the secondrow and backrows. Such a trait nails down Maro Itoje’s place in the squad, and enhances the prospects of Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne.
But the backrow remains, uber competitive, and hence I’m not happy omitting Hamish Watson.
Four years ago, the Lions were at their best when expressing themselves, especially with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as dual playmakers. However, given what will be coming at them from the Springboks, plenty of kicking and huge physicality at set-piece and across the gainline, these Lions will have to roll their sleeves up and compete in an arm wrestle as well.
Farrell, for example, did not have a vintage Six Nations but ticks plenty of these boxes and can travel as a third outhalf/centre, allowing for four of the latter.
Despite being sidelined this week, Sexton is the form ‘10’ from the Six Nations. He played the full 80 in Ireland’s last three wins and played comfortably more minutes (310) at outhalf than Dan Biggar (294), Finn Russell (284) and Farrell, who played just the first 69 minutes there against Scotland and the last four games at ‘12’. Sexton comfortably outscored the other three as well.
In all of this of course, all views are coloured by our nationalities, and this even applies to coaches, as well as their professional ports of call. This won’t be the squad announced on Thursday. It is compiled a tad through green-tinged glasses. But hey, so be it.
Back three: S Hogg (Scotland), L Williams (Wales), A Watson (England), L Rees-Zammit (Wales), D van der Merwe (Scotland), E Daly (England).
Centres: R Henshaw (Ireland), G Ringrose (Ireland), H Slade (England), J Davies (Wales).
Hookers: J George (England), K Owens (Wales), R Kelleher (Ireland).
Backrows: T Beirne (Ireland), C Lawes (England), T Curry (England), J Tipuric (Wales), T Faletau (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland).
Lions Test XV: S Hogg (Scotland); L Rees-Zammit (Wales), H Slade (England), R Henshaw (Ireland), L Williams (Wales); J Sexton (Ireland), C Murray (Ireland); M Vunipola (England), K Owens (Wales), T Furlong (Ireland); M Itoje (England), A W Jones (Wales, capt); C Lawes (England), T Curry (England), T Faletau (Wales).
Is a Lions tour without union jacks and tricolours blowing in the Cape Town sea-breeze really a Lions tour? Who cares, once all that filthy lucre is generated by the broadcast revenue. Pandemic problems aside, there are too many ifs, buts and club players to expect a series victory in South Africa (even with the Springboks in cold storage since 2019).
In Maro we must trust as a united Ireland amalgamates with Britain, all in the name of a rugby tradition where the opposition is economically dependent upon the Lions brand.
The scrumhalf cupboard is almost bare, with nobody challenging Conor Murray during the Six Nations, so Danny Care at Harlequins and John Cooney at least offer alternative styles. With Johnny Sexton unlikely to survive the relentless waves of giant Afrikaners, Owen Farrell will probably start at 10. The mercurial Finn Russell is almost certain to tour but he’s a liability that will be ruthlessly exposed on the Highveld.
Tadhg Beirne is the real bolter though. The most impactful Irish forward in the past 12 months, Beirne cannot be overlooked and while he will struggle to break up the dream secondrow partnership of James Ryan and Maro Itoje, the Kildare poacher extraordinaire offers ideal back up for England’s Kamikaze flankers, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, who must start if Warren Gatland’s pack is to have any hope against monsters like Eben Etzebeth, RG Snyman and Duane Vermeulen.
Without any supporting evidence, we’ve gone with Garry Ringrose over Henry Slade at 13 and Doris over Toby Faletau at number eight. Just blind faith. There will be plenty of that going around this summer.
Despite England’s dramatic collapse during the Six Nations, it seems foolish not to build the pack around the World Cup finalists with some added spice supplied by Leinster, Exeter and the boy wonder Louis Rees-Zammit.
Centres: Garry Ringrose (Ireland), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Manu Tuilagi (England), Henry Slade (England).
Halfbacks: Conor Murray (Ireland), Danny Care (England), John Cooney (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England), Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Finn Russell (Scotland).
Locks: Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), James Ryan (Ireland), Maro Itoje (capt, England), Iain Henderson (Ireland).
Backrow: Sam Underhill (England), Tom Curry (England), Toby Faletau (Wales), Caelan Doris (Ireland), Sam Simmonds (England), Tadhg Beirne (Ireland).
Lions XV: S Hogg (Scotland); A Watson (England), G Ringrose (Ireland), R Henshaw (Ireland), L Rees-Zammit (Wales); O Farrell (England), C Murray (Ireland); M Vunipola (England), L Cowan-Dickie (England), T Furlong (Ireland); J Ryan (Ireland), M Itoje (England, capt); T Curry (England), S Underhill (England), C Doris (Ireland).
Identifying a style of rugby to beat South Africa is the first item on the agenda and informs the choice of players to complete the task. A conservative approach won’t suffice as the Lions will not outmuscle the Springboks but will still require a power game, in terms of breakdown, set-piece and in defence.
There are other fundamentals required for Warren Gatland’s tourists to be successful, to be secure aerially and to bring athleticism and subtlety in attack, bolstered by an intelligent kicking game. Having established some parameters, it’s time to first look at the squad before trying to nail a potential Test team.
From an Irish perspective Garry Ringrose and James Ryan need to rediscover their best form over the coming weeks, Johnny Sexton currently has a concussion issue, while Jacob Stockdale is also on the fringes.
George North’s dreadfully unfortunate injury means that Jonathan Davies (Wales), Cameron Redpath (Scotland), Chris Harris (Scotland) and Manu Tuilagi (England), who will be back from injury prior to the tour, will now be part of the discussion about centres.
Versatility is a cherished attribute and in that respect Ireland’s in-form fullback/wing Hugo Keenan gets the nod over England’s Jonny May; Gatland may prefer Welsh wing Josh Adams or Scotland’s Sean Maitland.
Owen Farrell travels primarily as a centre but could easily play outhalf. Gatland belatedly realised in 2013 (Australia) and 2017 (New Zealand) that Sexton is a better outhalf in terms of getting a backline moving - it’s why England look more fluent in attack when George Ford is at 10 - while Dan Biggar has been excellent for Wales and the Northampton Saints.
Outhalf, scrumhalf and hooker are positions that are wide open when it comes to the both the travelling party and the Test starter. Ronan Kelleher is a dynamic physical presence that would offer a perfect foil off the bench to either of the other two hugely experienced hookers. Andrew Porter’s ability to play both sides of the frontrow earns him a plane ticket.
Alun Wyn Jones breaks up the English and Irish monopoly of secondrows and could captain the squad but might not make the Test team where he’d hand over that responsibility to Maro Itoje. That versatility is very evident in the back five in the pack, Iain Henderson and Itoje can play blindside flanker while Tadhg Beirne is at home in the secondrow.
If Caelan Doris had played in the Six Nations he’d have been a shoo-in. Sam Underhill (England), Sam Simmonds (England), Josh van der Flier (Ireland), Jack Conan (Ireland), Josh Navidi (Wales), Aaron Wainright (Wales), Matt Fagerson (Scotland) and James Ritchie (Scotland) can all make solid cases.
The Springboks will play three secondrows in the back five in the pack so this may offer the visitors a chance at the breakdown. The fact that there are so many 50/50 calls in terms of the Test team may be both a blessing and a curse; Gatland will hope that the picture is crystal clear come the three match series against the Springboks.
Back three: S Hogg (Scotland), L Williams (Wales), A Watson (England), D van der Merwe (Scotland), L Rees-Zammit (Wales), H Keenan (Ireland).
Centres: O Farrell (England), R Henshaw (Ireland), G Ringrose (Ireland), H Slade (England), J Davies (Wales).
Halfbacks: G Davies (Wales), B Youngs (England), C Murray (Ireland), J Sexton (Ireland), D Biggar (Wales).
Props: R Sutherland (Scotland), W Jones (Wales), M Vunipola (England), A Porter (Ireland), T Furlong (Ireland), K Sinkler (England).
Hookers: J George (England), K Owens (Wales), R Kelleher (Ireland).
Secondrows: M Itoje (England), J Hill (England), I Henderson (Ireland), J Ryan (Ireland), A Wyn Jones (Wales, capt).
Backrows: T Beirne (Ireland), T Curry (England), H Watson (Scotland), T Faletau (Wales), J Tipuric (Wales), B Vunipola (England).
Lions Test team
Lions XV: S Hogg (Scotland); A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), R Henshaw (Ireland), L Williams (Wales); J Sexton (Ireland), C Murray (Ireland); W Jones (Wales), K Owens (Wales), T Furlong (Ireland); M Itoje (England, capt), J Ryan (Ireland); T Beirne (Ireland), T Curry (England), T Faletau (Wales).
A peek into Warren Gatland’s head and the view is of a pragmatist. Remember Brian O’Driscoll and the third Test in 2013. Eight years ago and Gatland hasn’t softened.
But Gatland still needs magicians as well as heavy lifters against a South African side not short on muscle and while there are many who don’t like the cut of Scotland outhalf Finn Russell, assistant Gregor Townsend does.
The question is whether Gatland wants a team to stop South Africa from winning or a Lions side that can beat them.
Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit has caught eyes and scored tries. He’s 20-years-old and he’s a match winner, while Hugo Keenan played fullback in his first season and instantly owned it. Scotland winger Duhan van der Merwe has impressed with eight tries in 10 Test matches and he too will be thinking he’s worth a ticket.
Because it’s a three Test match series, the Lions need minds who are adaptable. That’s in the strike zone of Elliot Daly, Maro Itoje, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Beirne and Andrew Porter, who are also in form.
The conundrum is that players such as Garry Ringrose and James Ryan, who have potential to play in the Test side, are climbing their way back up after injury. Jacob Stockdale too, has he done enough this season, more than the towering South African Scot, Van der Merwe?
Experience is central to the team not imploding especially when South Africa bring pressure to the game. Owen Farrell the England centre and outhalf as well as Johnny Sexton, whose ‘A’ kicking game is unmatched but who’s still an injury concern, should travel.
Stuart Hogg, the Scotland captain and fullback, Alun Wyn Jones, the Welsh captain, Conor Murray and secondrow, Maro Itoje, another versatile player and occasional penalty machine, but what an effective presence in the England pack. The Lions need wise heads and while they may be predictable picks, they are trusted lieutenants and the only question is what form they can bring.
Props, they win matches don’t they. Ellis Genge, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Zander Fagerson, Cian Healy and Porter will be feeling it with Luke Cowan-Dickie and maybe a Jamie George or Ronan Kelleher shift at hooker, Kelleher a dynamic force off the bench. His mobility and football skills should bring him into play.
The backrow is a riot of talent with England leading. Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Wales with Justin Tipuric and Scotland’s retro looking Hamish Watson also demanding attention.
Back three: S Hogg (Scotland), L Rees-Zammit (Wales), A Watson (England), E Daly (England), D van der Merwe (Scotland), L Williams (Wales)
Centres: R Henshaw (Ireland), G Ringrose (Ireland), O Farrell (England), C Redpath (Scotland), M Tuilagi (England)
Halfbacks: F Russell (Scotland), J Sexton (Ireland), C Murray (Ireland), B Youngs (England), G Davies (Wales)
Props: T Furlong (Ireland), A Porter (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), M Vunipola (England), W Jones (Wales), E Genge (England)
Hookers: J George (England), K Owen (Wales), R Kelleher (Ireland)
Secondrows: J Ryan (Ireland), M Itoje (England), A Wyn Jones (Wales, capt), J Gray (Scotland), I Henderson (Ireland)
Backrows: T Curry (England), T Beirne (Ireland), J Tipuric (Wales), H Watson (Scotland), T Faletau (Wales), B Vunipola (England)
Lions Test XV: S Hogg (Scotland); L Rees-Zammit (Wales), G Ringrose (Ireland), R Henshaw (Ireland), D van der Merwe (Scotland); F Russell (Scotland), C Murray (Ireland); W Jones (Wales), J George (England), T Furlong (Ireland); M Itoje (England), A Wyn Jones (Wales, capt); T Beirne (Ireland), T Curry (England), T Faletau (Wales)