I was like a kid on Christmas morning at around lunchtime today. Finally, we have our 2017 British & Irish Lions. As expected Sam Warburton captains the squad and becomes only the second person to have had the privilege of captaining two tours. Martin Johnson was the other, I think he played for England! Gatland named 41 players instead of an expected 37, bringing extra cover in the back row and centres. A wise move given what’s ahead. This is a typical Gatland squad, size and power, a simple formula. I’m just not sure that’s the way you beat the All Blacks, but I won’t get into that now. In all, he named 16 players with previous Lions experience, a nice balance of 8 backs and 8 forwards. Alun Wyn Jones and Leigh Halfpenny receive the rare honour of being named to their third Lions tour. The breakdown by nationality is 16 English, 12 Welsh, 11 Irish and 2 lonely Scots.
The front row selections were pretty uncomplicated. The one noteworthy omission was of course England captain Dylan Hartley. Selected in 2013 but suspended before the tour, he misses out again. Cruel, even for him. Incidentally, this is the third consecutive tour where an English captain has been left at home. His spot goes to his understudy, Jamie George. The whole Irish front row makes the trip along with four English props while Ken Owens of Wales may be forgiven for feeling like the odd one out.
Gatland picked young mobile locks, that’s smart. In New Zealand they’re going to have to play like extra wing forwards. Lawes, Itoje, Kruis and Henderson all fit the bill here. Add the experience and intelligence of Wyn Jones and you’ve got a well oiled engine room. Joe Launchbury, the pillar in England’s second row, misses out and can feel very hard done by. His two man of the match performances in the 6 Nations this year seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The quality available in the back row is the real strength of the squad. I like that Gatland has brought extra cover. He knows this is going to be a physically demanding tour, the selection overall reflects that. All going well, that extra cover allows for some experimentation in the early games and keeps the starters fresh for the test matches. Who those starters will be is anyone’s guess. Literally, every possible combination is a formidable back row that I’d be happy to send out in the first test.
The selection of the half backs was straightforward. The three of them ensured their passports were in date weeks ago. This will be a closer race for the 9 shirt than people think however. Rhys Webb had an impressive 6 Nations and in particular against Ireland. Form will be so important coming into and indeed during the tour, so it’s less than ideal that Conor Murray hasn’t been able to shake off this shoulder injury. Ben Youngs has a tour under his belt and can spark instantaneously. As it stands, at the minute, I see it Murray, Webb then Youngs.
Two shoe-ins were Farrell and Sexton. Consummate playmakers and guys you build a team around. If Farrell goes to 12, as it’s looking like, the Lions only multiply their attacking options. I won’t complain too loudly about Biggar over Ford, it’s a case of where being Welsh helps.
In the centres, (in what sounds a little sadistic), I love the inclusion of Payne. He adds an awareness and intelligence to a group that isn’t short on explosive power and directness. Its a good balance. Rob Howley praised his defence in wide channels, so the Ulsterman’s sometimes unheralded work didn’t go unnoticed. I had expected Jamie Roberts to be named to his 3rd Lions tour but the English powerhouse Ben Te’o is a more than adequate alternative. Born in New Zealand, the former NRL star will be relishing the homecoming. Davies, Joseph and Henshaw are all powerful ball carriers but I’m looking forward to Robbie getting a chance at 13 where he’ll be afforded a little bit more time and space after a heavy workload at 12 for Ireland recently.
I’m disappointed there’s no room for Zebo or Earls in the back three. At first, when I looked at the selections, I was worried about the lack of creativity or ingenuity. When I take a breath and consider the likes of Hogg, Williams and Daly who can all conjure up something from nothing and combine that with the finishing prowess of North and Watson, I’m a little less concerned.
Overall, from an Irish perspective, you can’t have a lot of complaints. 11 is a good haul! One more than I was expecting in fact. I didn’t have room for Henderson and O’Mahoney in my prediction but I’m delighted they’re in. Henderson’s dynamism and O’Mahoney’s recent heroics give them well earned seats. In fact 7 of the starting pack that denied England the Grand Slam and test win record are rewarded. Oh how Jamie Heaslip must rue that ‘rolled ankle’. I had Cian Healy making it, Mako Vunipola edged him out. Sean Cronin and Donnacha Ryan would have been talked about but Zebo and Earls would be the two guys I’d advise to keep an eye on their phones.
An interesting thought to leave on..
Say Sexton, Farrell and Halfpenny all start. Who do you want holding the kicking tee?!
Dan Biggar – Ospreys, Wales
Elliot Daly – Wasps, England
Jonathan Davies – Scarlets, Wales
Owen Farrell – Saracens, England
Leigh Halfpenny – Toulon, Wales
Robbie Henshaw – Leinster Rugby, Ireland
Stuart Hogg – Glasgow Warriors, Scotland
Jonathan Joseph – Bath Rugby, England
Conor Murray – Munster Rugby, Ireland
George North – Northampton Saints, Wales
Jack Nowell – Exeter Chiefs, England
Jared Payne – Ulster Rugby, Ireland
Jonathan Sexton – Leinster Rugby, Ireland
Tommy Seymour – Glasgow Warriors, Scotland
Ben Te’o – Worcester Warriors, England
Anthony Watson – Bath Rugby, England
Rhys Webb – Ospreys, Wales
Liam Williams – Scarlets, Wales
Ben Youngs – Leicester Tigers, England
Rory Best – Ulster Rugby, Ireland
Dan Cole – Leicester Tigers, England
Taulupe Faletau – Bath Rugby, Wales
Tadhg Furlong – Leinster Rugby, Ireland
Jamie George – Saracens, England
Iain Henderson – Ulster Rugby, Ireland
Maro Itoje – Saracens, England
Alun Wyn Jones – Ospreys, Wales
George Kruis – Saracens, England
Courtney Lawes – Northampton Saints, England
Joe Marler – Harlequins, England
Jack McGrath – Leinster Rugby, Ireland
Ross Moriarty – Gloucester Rugby, Wales
Sean O’Brien – Leinster Rugby, Ireland
Peter O’Mahony – Munster Rugby, Ireland
Ken Owens – Scarlets, Wales
Kyle Sinckler – Harlequins, England
CJ Stander – Munster Rugby, Ireland
Justin Tipuric – Ospreys, Wales
Mako Vunipola – Saracens, England
Billy Vunipola – Saracens, England
Sam Warburton (Captain) – Cardiff Blues, Wales