WARREN Gatland threw up few surprises when The Lions Squad was announced last Tuesday. The inclusion of Matt Stevens and Dylan Hartley may have raised some eyebrows, and the exclusion of Johnny Wilkinson certainly caused a stir amongst the British press, but what did our rivals down under think?
Gatland’s decision to take big, powerful players certainly struck a chord. The Sydney Herald suggesting that after Gatland had looked at the menu on offer he opted for big slabs of red meat. In fairness, Warren has chosen some pretty beefy units and it gives the impression The Lions will look to maul and over power the wallabies. If the tour was decided on physical presence alone Gatland’s men would be victorious 3-0.
Besides the impressive physique that will be on display, the Australian media seemed less than impressed with the selection. Predictable, boring, and lacking a cutting edge – this was the common theme that emerged on Twitter from ex-pros and media alike. One headline from The Sydney Daily Telegraph read; ‘British and Irish Lions draw squad from far and wide’, an obvious dig at the selections made by Gatland.
There are eight players in the 37 men squad that were born outside of Britain and Ireland. Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Jamie Heaslip, Sean Maitland, Mako Vunipola, Ian Evans, Manu Tuilagi and Toby Faletau were all born overseas – seemingly forgetting that Robbie Deans is a kiwi and their star fly-half, Quade Cooper, was a resident of Auckland and Tokoroa on the North island of New Zealand for the first 13 years of his life. Not to mention the 24-year-old Mike Harris who is also a native of New Zealand. You can also add Digby Ioane to that list and Sekope Kepu, who represented New Zealand at under 17, 19 and 21 level.
It seemed like petty point scoring from the wallabies press and yet it didn’t stop there, one reporter even went on to say the squad included a ‘kiwi reject and South African busted for cocaine.’ You get the feeling some of these comments will be plastered on the dressing room walls ahead of the test matches just to remind those wearing red who they need to set straight.
Owen Farrell was also singled out, despite being a nominee for the 2012 IRB Player of the year, Farrell has not impressed those in the southern hemisphere. Australian pundits lamented the exclusion of 2003 IRB Player of the year Johnny Wilkinson, with many believing that Wilkinson was stronger in all of Farrell’s good and bad points of the game. The news that Wilkinson turned the Lions down seemed to do little to curtail the criticism, instead the focus shifted to Gatland’s inability to convince the Toulon out-half and how he took the ‘easy’ option in selecting Farrell.
While the press comments are not going to be the sole thought in the squad’s minds, it is interesting to see the reaction from down under. There can be no doubting the talent in the Lions squad, but it is evident there isn’t a whole lot to fear from it. 14 of the Lions come from a Welsh outfit that lost 3 tests to nil against Australia in 2012 (Jamie Roberts the 15th Welsh Lion didn’t tour in 2012)
That Welsh team was also captained by the young Sam Warburton, who does not seem to feature highly in the thoughts of Australian commentators. 1991 World Cup Winner, Tim Horan doesn’t rate Warburton good enough to start the Test Matches, comparing him to a non-playing captain similar to The Ryder Cup or Davis Cup.
Warburton’s selection as captain was predictable but there are still many who believe the role would have been far better suited to the experience of Paul O’Connell or the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll. The exclusion of England skipper Chris Robshaw leaves few in the way of English candidates that could skipper ahead of Warburton.
Ultimately there is going to be a lot of talking and a lot of gesticulating before the first test kicks off on June 22nd. Six tour matches precede that and it will be interesting to see not only how Gatland sets the Lions up, but what the Australian’s make of the squad combinations and potential test runners.