The Lions Roar – Gatland picks his squad for the tour to South Africa

After much speculation, second guessing and will it won’t it musings, we are now so much closer to an event that despite all the pandemic controversy we are all eagerly awaiting. Lions Coach Warren Gatland has finally lifted the veil on his selections, and much to our surprise it’s a 37 man squad that, bar one or two question marks and raised eyebrows, we find ourselves for the most part agreeing wholeheartedly with – not something we do very often! Like we say there are a few head scratchers in there, but perhaps more on the omissions than inclusions side. However, overall we have to be honest and say that we think Gatland may well have got it right.

So much like we did with our Six Nations report cards we’ll go through the departments and give our verdicts on the lucky winners with a brief aside and consolation to the one or two individuals who we thought were shoe ins but sadly will not be getting on the plane.

The Front Row – No surprises as Gatland goes for power and consistency without risking discipline

Like his Captain, Welsh Hooker Ken Owens will bring some quiet but consistent power and solidity to the Lions scrum and set pieces

It’s always tough to choose a front row especially on a tour to South Africa, where what goes on in the dark corners of the coal face would be essential reading for Defence against the Dark Arts students in Harry Potter books. South Africa will excel at getting under your skin here and the key is all about not rising to it and letting your discipline slip. Consequently Gatland has gone with individuals who for the most part seem to be able to keep a calm head in such circumstances. Wales Ken Owens is more than likely his starting choice at Hooker, with England’s Jamie George a reliable back up and starter for matches outside the three Tests. Don’t be surprised to see England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie even get a starting Test berth, we think he’s that good and has been one of England’s relatively few standout performers this year.

In the props, we feel that Gatland has got it right with one glaring exception. Scotland’s Rory Sutherland had an outstanding Six Nations and if you put his unfortunate red card aside so too did fellow Scot Zander Fagerson – there’s some gritty reliability here that Gatland can ill afford to do without. Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong was always a given, but we are delighted to see his colleague Andrew Porter get the nod as well. Porter will bring some much needed ferocity and aggression to the mix, but seems able to channel all this in such a way that he keeps the right side of the referee’s whistle. Welshman Wyn Jones was one of the cornerstones of Wales recent Six Nations success so he was never in doubt, but we’ll be honest and say that our collective jaws hit the floor when we saw England’s Mako Vunipola make the cut. Our choice would have been Ireland’s Cian Healy, but the only reason we can think of Vunipola’s inclusion is Gatland needs a lump figure to shore up the loosehead side at times. However, put aside the bulk and Vunipola is simply not dynamic enough for us up against some of the opposition he is likely to encounter in South Africa and we’d have rather gone with Healy’s more mobile package. We were also surprised to not see Wales’ Tomas Francis or England’s Kyle Sinckler get a look in. While Francis has had the odd lapses in the consistency department and Sinckler a tad too many disciplinary indiscretions, this still must have been a genuinely hard choice to leave these two dynamos out of proceedings.

The Second Row – With Gatland spoilt for choice here it’s hard to argue with only one real question mark

This pairing was NEVER in doubt – Wales Alun Wyn-Jones and England’s Maro Itoje

The real question marks here are more about who’s not going than who is. Wales’ Alun Wyn-Jones was guaranteed the Captain’s armbands as despite his age, he is a veteran who shows no signs of slowing down and his Test experience is simply second to none. England’s Maro Itoje we still feel is arguably England’s best player hands down, and an England and Lions Captain apprentice. Who better to serve your apprenticeship under than one of the game’s modern day legends? Sure there were question marks around Itoje’s discipline this Six Nations and that will be tested to the brink in South Africa, but few can argue against the fact that he is one of the hardest working players in Test rugby today. We feel Ireland’s Iain Henderson is a shrewd choice and his playing style may be particularly effective against a player like South Africa’s Lood de Jager. Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne was one of THE players of the Six Nations and adds some genuine versatility to Gatland as he is equally at home and devastating in the back row. The same can be said of England’s Courtney Lawes who can also ply his trade in both departments, and while he may be slightly lean on game time, he can often turn in some extraordinary performances when his team needs them the most, backed up by some phenomenal physicality which is exactly what you need in South Africa.

Our question mark really centres on the inclusion of England’s Jonny Hill over the likes of Ireland’s James Ryan and Scotland’s Jonny Gray. Watching Hill get destroyed in most of England’s Six Nations matches allied to some questionable discipline didn’t exactly fill us with confidence. We saw the same in Exeter’s recent quarter final against La Rochelle where Hill was more of a liability than an asset. While Gray may be nursing some injury niggles that may have concerned Gatland as well as Ryan having similar issues coupled to a Six Nations that wasn’t the best showcase of his exceptional talents – we think Gatland will regret leaving either of these two behind. Hill may pack some bulk that Gatland feels he may need against the giant Springbok second rowers that South Africa is renown for churning out, but we just have an uncomfortable feeling about this one.

The Back Row – A genuine golden horn of riches for Gatland means there was always going to be disappointment for some

Eddie Jones may not get it but Gatland clearly does as England’s Sam Simmonds gets a shot on the big stage

As difficult as the selection decisions must have been here, they surely must have been some of Gatland’s most enjoyable as a wealth of back row talent would have been laid before him. We simply cannot argue with any of his selections, even if Ireland’s Jack Conan and England’s Sam Simmonds may have raised a few eyebrows. In the case of Simmonds just because England Head Coach Eddie Jones seems oblivious to the Exeter man’s talents the rest of the world is not. The big talking point post this Lions tour will be that if, as many predict, Simmonds shines then how can Jones justify refusing to select him and surely can no longer avoid him. As for Jack Conan all we can say is why not? A powerhouse with both Leinster and Ireland, his bruising ball carrying and quick thinking in the No 8 slot will be a huge asset to the Lions in South Africa. Wales Justin Tipuric simply had to go and if Scotland’s Hamish Watson had not got the call we would have probably boycotted the Lions tour in protest. Of the rest despite a weak Six Nations England’s Tom Curry is the kind of ferociously relentless player the Lions will need while Wales Talupe Faletau epitomises the quiet power and reliability that the Lions will need to balance Conan’s explosive rampaging around the park.

Of omissions, we don’t think you can really argue with them, the problem is Gatland can only take so many players, and in a situation where he is literally spoilt for choice then his hands are tied. However, our condolences go out to England’s Sam Underhill who can be so effective when paired with Tom Curry and Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie who is equally effective alongside the “Mighty Mish” Hamish Watson. We feel that Wales’ Josh Navidi and Ireland’s legendary South African CJ Stander are also deeply unlucky not to make the plane.

The Halfbacks – the home of hard knocks and difficult choices

Experience counts for a lot in Gatland’s eyes in this part of the park – Ireland’s Conor Murray, England’s Owen Farrell and Welshman Dan Biggar all have plenty

Of all the decisions he had to make these were probably some of the most vexing for Warren Gatland. In the end though we think he got it right. We don’t think he had much choice in the scrum half department. Despite England’s Ben Youngs counting himself out of contention for a Lions spot, with all due respect he seemed to be suffering from a slight degree of delusion if he really thought he was in the running in the first place. Ireland’s Conor Murray and Wales Gareth Davies fit the bill in terms of big match experience while Scotland’s Ali Price had such a good Six Nations that somehow seemed to go under the radar of quite a few observers, it would have been folly to leave him behind.

For the fly halves though he clearly would have struggled with no real standout contenders other than perhaps Scotland’s Finn Russell and Wales’ Dan Biggar. Biggar was clearly the Six Nations most reliable fly half and Russell the tournament’s most dynamic and unpredictable. England’s Owen Farrell is there for his experience and the fact that he has performed admirably well in a Lions jersey in the past irrespective of his current form, and can also cover the centre channels. We would argue it is a bit of gamble taking him, but once again what choice did Gatland really have?

While many will wonder why Ireland’s Johnny Sexton didn’t make the cut despite a stellar performance against England in the last round of the Six Nations, Sexton has had more off days in the last year than good ones allied to an increasingly problematic injury record. When he is on song there are few that can better him, but when he’s not things can go rapidly south for his team. The same could be said about Farrell. The England fly half may not have the injury problems facing Sexton, but he can be an enormous disciplinary liability at times which South Africa will seek to exploit to the full. He struggles to keep his emotions in check, though without the burden of the Captaincy on his shoulders he may fare better but is still likely to be a gamble for Gatland. England’s George Ford did nothing this Six Nations to improve his International credibility while Wales’ Calum Sheedy simply lacks the kind of experience needed for a tour like this.

The Centres – Gatland decides to shake things up

It seems we’re the only people not surprised by Scotland’s Chris Harris getting the call

We have to admit that while we applauded one of his decisions that raised many an eyebrow this is clearly a problematic part of the park when it comes to getting the right mix. While we are perhaps not sure about Gatland’s pick of Ireland centre Bundee Aki, we had tipped Scotland’s Chris Harris as the surprise shoe in of all the selections and were delighted to be proved right. Aki is a surprising choice and one we are slightly on the fence about, but we do get what Gatland is trying to do with it. South African centres excel at straight up the middle highly physical play. You won’t get a Brian O’Driscoll type of centre, it’s smash and bash up the centre channels all the way. That’s what Aki does really well so it’s clearly a case of match what you’re up against. As for Harris, he may not be that imaginative on attack but then his opponents won’t be either, but what he excelled at this Six Nations was defending those centre channels against both the smash and bash experts or the magicians like France’s Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa. That’s why he there – defence! Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is there because he can do both as well as being exceptionally creative in attack which will be very useful in getting around his more unimaginative South African opponents. However, having just watched the first round of the South African Rainbow Cup matches, we’re not sure that the label of unimaginative still applies to South African centres as they looked awfully mobile around the park to us and Aki may be a bit more of a one-dimensional gamble, albeit a powerful one, than Gatland and the Lions really need.

What we don’t understand is England’s Elliot Daly. Firstly we don’t think he’s overly comfortable in the centre role, and he was a failure on the wing and at fullback in England’s Six Nations campaign. As far as we can fathom, he is there for one reason only, and that is his monster boot which in the thin air of the Veld in Johannesburg will give the Lions a lot of mileage in terms of carving out territory. Still we don’t think given his recent form that is reason enough to hand him a plane ticket. Ireland’s Gary Ringrose is a much more deserving candidate and even England’s Henry Slade despite a quiet Six Nations would have been better choices in our opinion.

The Backs – The fast and the furious

Jonny May and Louis Rees-Zammit exclusive: From Six Nations rivals to  brothers-in-arms
If Jonny May can’t catch him – who can? Welsh wonderkid Louis Rees-Zammit

The only thing slightly wrong with the picture above is that England’s Jonny May will not be on the plane to South Africa, despite him being one of the Northern Hemisphere’s fastest and most dynamic wingers. However, as we saw this Six Nations his abilities paled in comparison to those of new Welsh sensation Louis Rees-Zammit. Despite his lack of experience relative to May, Rees-Zammit’s defensive abilities were surprisingly on the mark this Six Nations, something which could not be said of May. As brilliant as the Englishman is on attack, defense is not his strong point. Rees-Zammit however seemed to have it all and thus gets the nod. England’s Anthony Watson made a blistering return to form this Six Nations despite the misfortunes of the rest of his colleagues, and can also do a useful shift at fullback if needed so his selection is a wise one. Welshman Josh Adams is a reliable figure out wide and Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe was one of the revelations of this Six Nations. The Scottish South African import’s big bruising ball carrying ability will come in very useful as he returns to his native land and the country that gave him his rugby education. His familiarity with the environment will be a valuable asset to the Lions and he’ll be no stranger to the hard fast pitches and thin air. Lastly there were few if any surprises in the fullback choices. Scotland’s Stuart Hogg is one of the most exciting players in the game today, and this Six Nations emerged as a real leader of men as he proved to be an exemplary Captain. Meanwhile Wales Liam Williams is a tried and trusted commodity and excels at getting his team out of trouble under pressure and like Hogg is a master of the counterattack from deep. Given that both also possess an exceptionally handy boot, there were few if any surprises in Gatland’s selections for the 15 jersey and what a delicious dilemma to have when it comes to choosing your starter for the three Tests.

Apart from Jonny May we thought there might have been an outside chance of a spot for Ireland’s Hugo Keenan at fullback who had a stellar Six Nations as well as Ireland’s Keith Earls who was often Ireland’s go to man this Six Nations on the wing.

It’s a long hard tour with plenty of scope for hard knocks and injuries so some of those we felt are feeling slightly miffed at not getting a shot at Lions glory may still get a chance before it’s all over. Either way it should be a stellar tournament and we can’t wait even if the curse of COVID 19 continues to deny us the crowds and supporters that are synonymous with a Lions tour. How a South African side that hasn’t played a Test match in almost two years will fare against Britain and Ireland’s finest is a HUGE question mark. However, let’s not forget that despite their lack of game time since the last World Cup they still are World Champions, with a raft of players plying their trade in the top leagues of Europe. In short, on home soil and in a country where rugby is almost a religion they will be no pushover.  As soon as we get a handle on how we’ll be able to watch it here in Canada we’ll let you know.

To get you in the mood and start building some anticipation – here’s a little teaser!

Published by Neil Olsen

Passionate about rugby and trying to promote the global game in Canada and North America.

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