In a weeks time Warren Gatland will name a 37 man squad that he believes can travel to New Zealand and win a Test Series against the All Blacks. Seems straight forward enough but its worth noting that the last Lions tour to be successful in the land of the long white cloud was way back in 1971. If they are to pull it off this time around Gatland’s men are going to have to beat arguably the most in-form team in the history of the sport on the back of the most challenging tour schedule that the British & Irish Lions have ever faced. Gone are the days of a semi-professional provincial outfit getting their day out against the northern hemisphere visitors – there are no easy games this time around. Before a Lions XV gets a crack at the All Blacks they are going to have to face 4 of the 5 super rugby franchises as well as an international standard, and always proud, NZ Maori side. The opening match of the tour against a provincial barbarians selection is perhaps an ideal way to test the waters but by no way a guaranteed result and each super rugby team will, I guarantee you, not only be looking to take a Lions scalp but be expecting to. What awaits the 2017 Lions is almost like an ambush, a bruising schedule in a country that breathes the sport and has been waiting for what seems like an eternity since Dan Carter et al last put the Lions to the sword. I can guarantee that the 37 players fortunate enough to be selected won’t be the 37 that finishes the tour, thats the nature of this attritional sport. There will be reinforcements along the way and perhaps even withdrawals before the wheels are up. I can imagine Gatland looking on apprehensively as his players take the field when teams like Leinster, Munster and Saracens go deep into their respective domestic competitions.
By now Warren will have the bulk of his squad decided upon, and it appears the man to lead that squad has retained the honour. Sam Warburton will captain the 2017 Lions as he did in Australia in 2013. Gatland picked the then 24 year old to lead ahead of more obvious choices like previous Lions captain Paul O’Connell or third time tourist Brian O’Driscoll so I wouldn’t entertain any notions of a change in captaincy this time around. Warburton has captained a winning Lions tour, thats all he needs on his CV. Hartley, Best, Wynn Jones all may have been considered at one time or another, but not for long. Some may argue that Warburton’s test shirt is far from guaranteed, and thus his captaincy, especially considering a recent medial ligament strain and the form of the likes of Stander and Tipuric. Trust me, Warburton is in that back row somewhere!
Form and indeed the final 6 Nations table suggests the Welsh won’t have many tourists but they are Gatland’s boys and he trusts them so I won’t be surprised to see at least as many Welsh as Irish in the 37 man squad if not more. In fact my player breakdown has 13 English, 10 Welsh, 10 Irish and 4 Scots. Thats tough on the Scots after their most impressive 6 Nations in a long while but Gatland knows his Welsh players and what he can get from them. Don’t forget 10 Welshmen started the decisive 3rd test against Australia four years ago and there wasn’t even space for our beloved BOD. Gatland will start 10 again if he thinks they’ll deliver a win. A test series win four years ago is all the justification he needs.
I see both the entire Irish and English front rows being named in the squad, McGrath, Best, Furlong and their counterparts Marler, Hartley and Cole. I am even expecting Mako Vunipola and Cian Healy to travel despite both having been used mostly off the bench for their respected countries in recent times. Zander Ferguson makes the trip as extra tighthead cover, (you can never have enough tightheads!) and his fellow Scot, hooker Fraser Brown, gets a seat on the plane for his consistent darts in this years 6 Nations. In the second row you will see Alun Wyn Jones named despite being an injury doubt alongside the two English workhorses Launchbury and Lawes. The 4th lock position goes to the big Scot Jonny Gray who edges out his brother Richie. Ireland’s poor lineout play in this years 6 Nations really hurts the likes of Toner, Ryan and Henderson here. I would have seen Toner as a banker a year ago but there is no room at the Inn for an Irish second row I’m afraid.
The back row is without doubt the most contested area for selection and there are going to be some seriously good players watching at home or touring with their national team feeling more than a little hard done by. I don’t have space for Robshaw the English tackling machine. Peter O’Mahoney’s form is hard to look beyond but again I just can’t fit him in! My back row that travels includes the Welsh trio of Warburton, Tipuric and Faletau, our lads O’Brien and Stander, and the English duo of Itoje and Billy Vunipola. The Lions management are spoilt for choice in naming a starting 6, 7 and 8 when you consider Warburton, O’Brien and Stander can comfortably play in any of the three roles.
When it comes to choosing your touring nines, it is far less complicated. Give Conor Murray the 9 shirt now and bring Rees Webb and Ben Youngs along who both add that change of pace, sniping scrum half play. Sexton and Farrell are no brainers but the 3rd out half to travel, who will effectively be the ‘mid week’ number 10, goes to Ford who sneaks in ahead of Biggar on current form. Ford is very skilful player and reliable goal kicker which can be said of Biggar but neither is defensively strong enough to be considered in the test side in my opinion. Gatland will bring three 10’s so Ford gets the bronze.
The midfield is another hotly contested area and this is where I think Gatland will go back to what he knows and trusts in naming Roberts and Davies ahead of the emerging Ringrose and English impact man Ben Teo’o. There has been a lot of chatter about Owen Farrell starting in the 12 shirt and it could in fact work very well, but if the All Blacks shut down the playmaking ability of Farrell you will see Gatland return to the guaranteed gain-line, ground and pound partnership of Roberts and Davies. I have Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph as my other two centres and who’ll wear 13 in that first test will most likely come down to who impresses most on tour leading into it. Again there are some very talented names that didn’t make the cut, including the impressive Huw Jones of Scotland, and the tour probably came one year too soon for Gary Ringrose while Jarred Payne’s absence from most of this years 6 Nations definitely hurt him.
The back three are the sexy selections, the speedsters, the try scorers, the weapons. I think Gatland will be very tactical when deciding what wingers to bring, or at least I hope he will be. When facing the All Blacks you’re facing a team with very few if any weaknesses so if you’re aware of one you better make sure you go after it. Ireland, and in particular Conor Murray, exposed the All Black wings last autumn with contestable kicks, box kicks and cross field kicks especially. It is such a strong part of Murray’s game that I’d like to see wingers with ariel ability selected to compliment that aspect of his game. Give me Simon Zebo, Anthony Watson and Lee Williams all of whom have experience at full back and are strong in the air. George North is the other obvious selection on the wing and is cert for a test jersey. I wouldn’t be surprised and indeed I’d love to see Keith Earls selected ahead of Williams but again this is Gatland’s squad and I think he’ll favour the Welshman. Hogg and Halfpenny are the two full backs to travel for me. Hogg the 6 Nations player of the year is surely favourite for the 15 jersey although I have a sneaky suspicion he’ll end up on the wing – I’d be pretty excited to see how that would unfold. There is so much scope for invention and experimentation with the back three players during the tour so it will be fascinating to see who ends up in the coveted test jerseys.
The key to this Lions squad selection will be to get the balances right, between youth and experience, fearlessness and durability, inventiveness and savvy. In the pack I want the reckless abandon of Itoje and Furlong complimented by the intelligence and nous of Best and Wynn Jones. In a backline I want all the confidence and spark of Hogg and Zebo combined with the steadiness and security of Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts. Gatland’s task is more complicated than picking the best 37 players, he has to pick the right players – thats the kicker!
Props (6): Jack McGrath (Ire), Joe Marler (Eng), Tadgh Furlong (Ire), Dan Cole (Eng), Mako Vunipola (Eng), Cian Healy (Ire), Zander Ferguson (Sco)
Hookers (3): Rory Best (Ire), Dylan Hartley (Eng), Fraser Brown (Sco)
Locks (4): Alun Wynn Jones (Wal), Courtney Lawes (Eng), Joe Launchbury (Eng), Jonny Gray (Sco)
Back Row (7): Sam Warburton (Wal), Justin Tipuric (Wal), Sean O’Brien (Ire), Maro Itoje (Eng), CJ Stander (Ire), Toby Faletau (Wal), Billy Vunipola (Eng)
Scrum Halves (3): Conor Murray (Ire), Ben Youngs (Eng), Rhys Webb (Wal)
Out Halves (3): Johnny Sexton (Ire), Owen Farrell (Eng), George Ford (Eng)
Centres (4): Jamie Roberts (Wal), Jonathan Davies (Wal), Robbie Henshaw (Ire), Jonathan Joseph (Eng)
Wings (4): George North (Wal), Simon Zebo (Ire), Anthony Watson (Eng), Lee Williams (Wal)
Full Back (2): Leigh Halfpenny (Wal), Stuart Hogg (Sco)