The British and Irish Lions: the best Home Nations players in their positions touring one of the Southern Hemisphere rugby powers every 4 years. Selection for this squad is validation of your quality and the highest possible honour. Or at least it should be.
When Warren Gatland named his 41-man Touring Party there were some surprises at the omission of a couple of top performers – including Joe Launchbury, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray – in favour of players whose form in recent internationals had been questionable to say the least. These grumbles however are nothing compared to the widespread condemnation of the 6 call-ups that have been announced this weekend:
- Kristian Dacey – hooker – Wales
- Tomas Francis – prop – Wales
- Cory Hill – second row – Wales
- Gareth Davies – scrum half – Wales
- Allan Dell – prop – Scotland
- Finn Russell – fly half – Scotland
While I am very much against these call-ups, I want to make clear that I have nothing against the players themselves for their selections. To play in a Lions tour to New Zealand is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to feature in any Lions tour is more than many players will ever manage. However I have a lot of problems with the whole situation, which I will try to look at below.
Call me naïve, but I feel that once the 41-man squad was named, all that should be allowed this should be replacements for players forced to pull out, rather than extra players. Gatland has even stated that it was always in his plans to bring in reinforcements at this stage, as he wanted to have separate 23-man squads for the midweek games and Test matches. If this was the case, then surely it would have been better to have taken a 46-man squad to New Zealand. This would have also given Gatland more options as Biggar and Sexton have been anything but spectacular on the whole, whereas Finn Russell could have provided extra competition for the fly half berth, especially given Owen Farrell’s current injury worries. It would also allow the new recruits to be fully up to speed with the team’s tactics and calls, which the squad will have been working on for weeks. I find it even more odd that Gatland has considered the back row and fullback positions as suitably stocked given the loss of Ross Moriarty and Stuart Hogg, the only original picks who have left the tour through injury! I understand that a larger touring party makes it more difficult for players to get enough game time to prove themselves, but surely the extra options can only help the coaches, especially as players recovered from jet lag in the opening days of the tour.
What also worries me from Gatland’s interviews regarding bringing in reinforcements is the way that he mentions his job is to win the Test series and how he wants a completely separate 23 for the Tests compared to the midweek fixtures. This could so easily cause a split in the party, as the 23 who have been named to face the Chiefs on Tuesday now know that they are effectively not in Gatland’s plans for the games that ‘matter’. While I’m sure these players will still go out and play for the crest, I would not be surprised if at least a few of them are subconsciously wondering what the point is of putting in a big performance in these games if there is no chance of making the Tests. It must be even harder for the new players, who know that they are there just to make up the numbers and will be released after the Hurricanes game, so would need a considerable number of injuries to even be considered for the Tests, a real shame for Finn Russell who has been in great form for Scotland in recent weeks.
Arguably the biggest complaint about the announcement is that it has devalued ‘The Untouchable Jersey’ by picking players by their geography rather than merit. Despite being the top 2 finishers in the 6 Nations, players from England and Ireland were not considered for these call-ups due to their summer tours being some distance from New Zealand. Of the 6 players called up, the only ones that I feel deserve to be in the squad on merit are Finn Russell (who I feel should have been picked over Dan Biggar initially) and Gareth Davies. Of the other players picked, is Allan Dell more worthy of a spot than Cian Healy? Is Dacey (third choice for Wales during the 6 Nations) a better option than England captain Dylan Hartley? Is Cory Hill really a better second row than Launchbury? Maybe they are future Lions, but I don’t feel that any of them should have been making it onto this tour. Even if we accept Gatland’s excuse of having to pick nearby players who would be not affected by jet lag, I would argue that Jonny Gray has to be picked over Cory Hill and would also look at Fraser Brown/Ross Ford and WP Nel in favour of Dacey and Francis. I hesitate to use the word ‘bias’, but it does seem that the Welsh contingent is surprisingly high considering their performances and finishing position in the 6 Nations.
I understand the importance of a series victory in modern rugby, especially given the debates as to the significance of the Lions in the modern rugby calendar, but I agree with Ugo Monye’s comments last night that it does not feel right and seems against the spirit of the Lions. I wonder if part of this is actually down to having a foreign Head Coach as opposed to a British or Irish coach in charge.
I will continue to support the team, of course, but I feel that things need to be looked into after the tour in order to ensure the next one in 2021 is a return to the magic we expect from a Lions Tour.
What are your thoughts on the selections? Do you think these call-ups were needed? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge