After a year of conjecture, potential XVs, analysis and pundit predictions the Lions squad to take on New Zealand this summer has finally been announced. Sam Warburton captains the team, becoming only the second player to lead 2 tours but there is no spot on the plane for England captain Dylan Hartley. Other notable absentees include Joe Launchbury, arguably the finest lock from this year’s six nations, and Johnny Gray, who are also unlucky to miss out. But that is because there is such a wealth of talent in this squad. If you were to make room for Gray in the second row, a highly competitive position, who would be dropped? That is a question most nay-sayers about this squad will have to confront.
The main contingent is provided by the Six Nations champions England with 16 players but only 2 representing Scotland. That will hurt. A Six Nations campaign which saw them defeat Ireland and Wales was not enough to join player of the tournament Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour. There is not a single Scottish forward, the first time that has happened since 1908. Begs the question, are their players simply good enough? Gatland is no stranger to making tough calls, as the final test proved with his omission of Brian O’Driscoll in 2013.
Meanwhile the underperforming Welsh have 12 in the squad. Full of past tourists from 2013’s successful tour to Australia, the likes of Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Leigh Halfpenny will offer great experience and leadership, vital for a team coming together for the first time. But they are short of form. Warburton would have only just returned from a six week long injury. They finished 5th in this years six nations. Rob Howley, who has been interim manager this season, is now attack coach. I hope the Lions don’t play in the same predictable style or else you might as well call it a 3-0 whitewash now.
Now a lesson from history and the tour to New Zealand in 2005. It was an embarrassment for Clive Woodward’s side. The squad, consisting of 44 players not to mention 26 backroom staff, was far too big. Gatland’s 41 man squad touches that number but does provide solid backup given the inevitability of injuries that will occur. Then there was the fact that Woodward stayed too loyal to his English world cup winners. They were out of form and past their best whilst only 10 players toured from the grand slam winning Welsh side of that year. This will always happen when a national coach is also made the Lions coach. There are then some stern warnings from history about what happens when you start to pick on what you know over what is best for the squad. Gatland of course knows this. Gatland has enough experience as a Lions coach and manager to not make the same mistake.
Ultimately this is still a very strong squad and I have every confidence they will do well. Will they win the series? It is unlikely. The challenge is immense but there are some exciting combinations that can take the game to the All Blacks on their own turf. The Irish and English players in the squad will know what it is to beat them. Bringing that winning mentality will be critical.
Winning is what matters. They will travel to the land of the long white cloud to do just that, something a Lions side have not done since 1971. That is why Gatland has gone with the squad he has. He will take the debate and some mild disappointment this announcement has caused in his stride. No doubt narrowing the squad of 41 into a starting 15 for that first test in Auckland will cause even more debate. But the squad is selected. That’s the easy bit. Now it is time to let the play on the pitch do the talking.
Words: Cameron Bonser
Image: Rex Features