Warren Gatland has today announced the 41 players that he will be taking with him to New Zealand. As befits a Lions squad, there are a few shock call-ups and omissions.
The full squad (sorted by their main international positions) is as follows:
Prop Dan Cole, Tadhg Furlong, Joe Marler, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola
Hooker Rory Best, Jamie George, Ken Owens
Second Row Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes
Back Row Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton (captain)
Scrum Half Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs
Fly Half Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton
Centre Jonathan Davies, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph, Jared Payne, Ben Te’o
Wing Elliot Daly, George North, Jack Nowell, Tommy Seymour, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams
Fullback Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg
I am sure people will spend hundreds of hours debating these selections over the next few weeks. Now that I have had a chance to take a break from work and properly look at the squad, I thought I would post my initial thoughts on the selection.
Notable absentees: As the man who captained England to consecutive 6 Nations tournament victories, Dylan Hartley is arguably the highest profile absentee from Gatland’s squad. It must be even more disappointing for him that his international understudy Jamie George will be going to New Zealand while he tours Argentina. However due to recent form and disciplinary problems, I don’t think this was the shock that it may have been this time last year. More startling was the omission of Joe Launchbury. The Wasps second row was arguably the best in his position in the 6 Nations and one of the best players overall in the tournament this season, winning Man of the Match twice in 5 games. He is a reliable tackler with the work rate of a back row. It was always going to be difficult to select from such a deep pool of second rows, but I also feel that the Gray Brothers, Jonny especially, can consider themselves unlucky to have missed out, especially considering they have more international experience than Ireland’s Iain Henderson (though I do rate him as a player).
Where are the Scots?: Scotland’s improved performances in this year’s 6 Nations (other than the game against England) led to them missing out on second place in the tournament by nothing more than points difference. Scottish fans will have therefore been bitterly disappointed to see only Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour representing the nation in New Zealand. As mentioned above, I would have expected Jonny Gray to feature in place of Iain Henderson, but I would have also considered Finn Russell to be more suited to the back line Gatland has picked. I’m sure that Greig Laidlaw would have been in contention had he not been injured, likewise Huw Jones and Willem Nel, however I don’t feel that there was anyone else in the front row or back row who definitely deserved a spot ahead of one of Gatland’s selections. Alex Dunbar was superb for Scotland in the 6 Nations and is defensively solid but I feel that he was likely overlooked as Te’o and Henshaw can provide that physical presence in the centre combined with more of an attacking game, while the other centres picked are more natural ball-players.
Versatility is key: Injuries will happen during the tour, that’s the harsh reality. While it is possible to call up a replacement, it may take time for them to get up to speed with the squad’s tactics. As well as selecting a couple more players than expected, Gatland has also selected a number of players who can cover multiple positions. Taulupe Faletau is probably the only member of the back row who doesn’t cover multiple positions and even 3 of the second rows (Itoje, Lawes and Henderson) have played internationally at open-side flanker. In the backs, I hope Owen Farrell is used at 10 in the Test matches, but I expect him to slot into the centre to allow them to also play Sexton. Most of the wingers selected also have experience at full back, as does Jared Payne in the centre. Leigh Halfpenny, considered a fullback for Wales, is probably better suited to playing on the wing too! And then we have Elliot Daly: centre or fullback at Wasps, wing for England; it really wouldn’t surprise me if his versatility gets him a place in the Test 23. None of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises are likely to roll over meekly for the Lions, nor are the Maori All Blacks, so such versatility will allow Warren Gatland to keep the team fresh while they play 10 matches 5 weeks.
Bolting for the plane: Almost as traditional as the red jerseys and cuddly toy lion, it’s not a Lions Tour without a couple of ‘bolters’ – surprise selections who often have a limited amount of international experience compared to their rivals for a spot on the plane. When I look at this squad, I personally consider Ross Moriarty and Kyle Sinckler to be the biggest bolters. Moriarty had a fantastic 6 Nations, keeping Faletau out of the starting XV after his return from injury. His performance against England was especially noteworthy, but I felt that his lack of international experience, combined with the strength in depth available to Gatland in the back row would count against him. I’m so glad to have been wrong on this count and look forward to seeing Gloucester represented in New Zealand. Sinckler’s inclusion may have been rumoured in the days leading up to the announcement, but I was still surprised to see him selected. He has really impressed for Harlequins and I’m sure that he will soon be ousting Dan Cole form the starting front row for England, but I was fully expecting him to be touring Argentina with Eddie Jones due to his lack of international experience, especially in the starting XV. I’m sure that Willem Nel would have gone in his place had it not been for his injury setbacks this season, but Sinckler has also benefited from a Welsh scrum that struggled in the 6 Nations. Perhaps the more experienced youngster, Zander Fagerson can perhaps feel disappointed to miss out, but he also struggled at the scrum in a couple of games.
Is this a team capable of beating the World Champions? I think they can, but it will by no means easy. I may not agree on all the selections, but now the squad is announced, it is time to start looking towards the initial game at Whangarei against New Zealand Barbarians. Good luck lads!!
What are your thoughts on the squad? Who would make your match day squad? How do you feel the Lions will do in New Zealand? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge