Now that Warren Gatland has finally unveiled his 37 man touring party for this years Lions tour to Australia we take an in-depth look at the selections and how they might impact this years tests.
Possibly the biggest decision for Gatland and his coaching team was who would lead the Lions throughout the tour and during the test matches. That honour has been bestowed upon the bookies favourite, and Wales incumbent captain (we think) Sam Warburton. The captain issue has caused many headaches in the build up to the announcement with no clear contender standing head and shoulders above the rest. Whilst experienced heads like O’Connell and O’Driscoll may have been strong options, neither are guaranteed starting places in the test team so would have been difficult to choose as captain. Other early favourites like Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip suffered a dramatic six nations dip in form and would therefore be a contentious choice, and the likes of Chris Robshaw and Kelly Brown who were considered strong candidates before the squad announcement have not even been called up by the Lions.
This therefore left only one genuine choice for the captaincy, Sam Warburton. Many may not consider him the ideal choice for captain as he lacks Lions experience, or suffered a dip in form, or there were other candidates they preferred. I must admit I was initially in the camp of believing he wasn’t the best man for the job based on his recent slump in performances but the more I’ve thought about it the more I’m coming round to the idea. Warburton is a player Gatland knows well and trust both on and off the field which is of the utmost importance given what has occurred on previous international tours. And although he may not be the most vocal of leaders, one thing he does better than most is lead by example, he was happy to take a back sear as Wales clinched their second successive six nations title this season but still made a significant impact in their final game against England. I will continue to remain sceptical until the end of the first test but for the time being he seems like the sensible options given a lack of viable alternatives.
Dan Cole, Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Matt Stevens, Mako Vunipola
The selections of props for the tour has been one of the most controversial areas of selection as although the likes of Cole, Healy and Jones was to be expected, the selection of Stevens, Vunipola, and less so Jenkins came as a surprise to many. In Cole and Healy we know we have decent scrummagers at loosehead and tighthead who are also capable of making an impact around the field both defensively and as ball carriers. Adam Jones represents Mr Reliable who is unlikely to watch the Lions scrum take a backwards step under his stewardship. Gethin Jenkins is an interesting one as although his club form has been well off the mark he made a significant impact playing for Wales in the six nations and for that reason probably just about deserves his spot on the plane. This was the point were I was going to have a rant about Wilkinson not being included whilst Jenkins was because of fixture clashes, but the news that Wilkinson opted out of the Lions has put a stopper on that one.
The Saracens duo of Matt Stevens and Mako Vunipola represent a whole different dimension to the team. Both have been in impressive form for Sarries this season with Vunipola in particular having made a significant impact at both club and international level. Question marks remain over the pair at international level though with Vunipola only just at the beginning of a fledgling international career, whilst Stevens retired from England duty several years back. Personally, I for one am delighted to see Vunipola being included in the Lions squad, he offers something that very few other props do, despite his considerable size he makes hard yards with relative ease which has resulted in a number of big carries and even tries for Saracens this season. I also believe Stevens represents a sensible option for Gatland as now only has he been in fine form for Saracens this year, he is also able to pack down on either side of the scrum, a rare talent amongst front-row players.
Dylan Hartley, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs
The choices at hooker represent a slightly more conventional selection from Gatland and his team with stand-out candidate Richard Hibbard confirmed of his place on the plane. Tom Youngs has also been outstanding for both England and Leicester Tigers in the last year or so and is therefore more than worth his place on the tour. Dylan Hartley is a more interesting selection, mainly as a result of his fall from grace at international level. Whilst he has been in great form leading Northampton Saints into the play-off places once again this year, he has been surpassed by Youngs for England in the number 2 jersey. This time last year he was many peoples favourite to play hooker for the Lions but his international form has reduced the clamour, I still believe him to be a great player who leads by example and can prove to be another leader for the Lions. The big omission at hooker is Rory Best who many feel aggrieved to see him miss out on the Lions once again. However, his performances this year for Ireland have been well below par and I think based on current form Youngs and Hibbard are well ahead, beyond that Hartley’s captaincy experience just nudges him ahead.
Ian Evans, Richie Gray, Alun-Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Geoff Parling
I must admit to being somewhat disappointed by the selections at lock for the Lions tour. Whilst Jones, Evans and O’Connell are all more than deserving of their place on the plane, Gray and Parling have come at the expense of some exceptional players. I find Gray in particular a strange choice given his in-different form for Scotland in this years 6 nations and his generally poor performances at Sale Sharks coupled with an injury that his seen him kept out since February. Parling on the other hand has been in good form for England and Leicester and goes for his line-out ability, I am not however convinced there are not others who can still provide the same skills at line-out time whilst still offering more around the pitch. I was a big advocate of Jim Hamilton joining the touring party given his strong performances for Gloucester this year and particularly impressive run-outs for Scotland in the 6 nations where he was key to many of their best performances.
Tom Croft, Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip, Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton
The selection of back row players was always going to stir debate based on the number of outstanding candidates in the positions, it meant some were always going to be disappointed. Generally it’s hard to be too disappointed with the selection with two out and out 7’s ideal for combating Australia’s threat at the breakdown, a good mix of blindsides and two contrasting 8’s. I do feel sorry for some of the players who have missed out such as Chris Robshaw and Kelly Brown who both led their countries with distinction this year and really put their bodies on the line for the cause. I am particularly disappointed by the absence of Robshaw who has been truly excellent and a great leader and has missed out to players who have only just returned from injury. That said it is hard to genuinely claim that Robshaw is that stand-out players at either 6 or 7 but he would have provided excellent cover from the bench being able to provide cover for both flanks.
Conor Murray, Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs
Again no great surprise at scrum half, the three selected are probably the best all-round scrum halves available with strong kicking and running games. If it were me selecting I would personally have taken Laidlaw over Murray as I believe his recent form to have been excellent, I also think his ability to cover both the 9 and 10 channels would make him an ideal utility player, especially given that only two fly-halves have been included in the squad. I would also potentially have liked to have seen Care tour due to his ability to create a bit of magic out of nothing, his speed on the hard ground would have been a real-asset and would have made for a great battle between him and Genia. Gatland has clearly opted on the side of caution with most of his selections though and this is no better demonstrated than in the number 9 shirt.
Owen Farrell, Jonny Sexton
As many expected Sexton and Farrell will both tour for the Lions this year. They offer a nice contrast to one another with Sexton providing more ball-in-hand whilst Farrell has traditionally been the ice man under pressure. My one concern is that in some recent big match games (.v Wales & .v Toulon) he seems to have been fazed by the pressure and lost his cool somewhat. I would therefore have liked to have seen Wilkinson tour as well as there is no other player I would rather see taking a last minute kick to win the series but as previously mentioned that is unfortunately not a possibility as Wilkinson has ruled himself out of the team. The big issue for Gatland at 10 was always going to be the lack of genuine top-class players in the position which is shown in the selection of a player returning from injury and another who seems to have taken a recent dip in form and confidence.
Jonathan Davies, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Manu Tuilagi
Again no great surprises in the selections at centre with a good mix of youth in Tuilagi and experience in Roberts and O’Driscoll. The biggest concern here though is the lack of players with a big of magic. O’Driscoll is still a class act and I am therefore delighted to see him tough and genuinely hope he starts in the test matches, the concern then lies in the lack of subtlety amongst his mid-field partners, Tuilagi and Roberts in particular are well known as crash ball centres who tend to lack an off-loading game. This may provide defensive stability but is hardly going to set the world alight and may struggle against a highly skilled Aussie backline. I do feel Tuilagi is beginning to develop an element of subtlety to his game but this is still a work in progress, I would therefore have liked to have seen a player like Luke Marshall, Joel Tomkins or Billy Twelvetrees included to add an extra dimension to the Lions offence.
Tommy Bowe, Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland, George North
The Welsh giants North and Cuthbert have both been included as many expected, Tommy Bowe also receives a well deserved call-up whilst Sean Maitland comes into the team outside of most peoples expectations. I believe these four provide a good mix of defensive strength and try scoring power that gives me confidence in the team ability to score tries in Australia. I am particularly pleased to see Maitland tour as his experience of Super rugby could prove invaluable when taking on an impressive looking Australian backline. I still would have liked to have seen a real bolter like Wade or Zebo included who would have provided a real threat ball in hand on the firm ground but their lack of experience could of seen them come undone.
Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg, Rob Kearney
Definitely no surprises at full back in the squad with Mr Consistent Leigh Halfpenny included alongside Stuart Hogg and Rob Kearney. I like the contrast of Hogg and Halfpenny who offer something slightly different and Rob Kearney who is a great all rounder. Whilst Halfpenny is clearly favourite to start in the tests I think Hogg could make a massive impact off the bench as a result of his speed and ability ball in hand. He offers a real threat to the Australian backs and could be the source of some great play for the Lions. It is hard to think of any other full backs who would merit a place in the squad given recent form.
All-in-all it is hard to argue with any of the selections in the squad with all the stand-out performers included, whilst the majority of players expected to tour have been included. There are some notable omissions like Chris Robshaw and Rory Best but when taking a step back it is hard to put together a coherent argument for why they would be a notably better option than any of those include ahead of them. The other consideration is that by the time the squad eventually sets off for Australia there are likely to have been several replacements made due to injury so it is not the end for some of those not listed so far.
Whilst I am content with the selections my biggest criticism lies in the fact that whilst the squad looks solid on paper it lacks a genuine spark of creativity that can make a huge difference. Players like Wade, Marshall and Zebo would have been great to see in the squad, initially starting in the mid-week team before potentially being promoted in the final tests. They would of provided an excellent contrast to the likes of North,Cuthbert, Roberts and Tuilagi. It also would of made for some excellent attacking rugby as we watched young bolters like Zebo and Wade take on the likes of Beale, Cooper and Ioane, now that really would of made for an exciting series.
Let us know what you think of the selections below…