The moment we’ve all been waiting for has arrived; the Lions squad is out!
Ultimately it was a slightly underwhelming announcement with few of the fireworks some expected Gatland to provide. The late bolts from flair players went largely unrewarded, and Simon Zebo, Christian Wade, Ian Madigan and James Hook will all have to look to national summer tours for rugby, injury call-ups notwithstanding.
We got much right in our predictions, and some things wrong. Kearney snuck in the door as one of three specialist full-backs. At centre they’ve chosen a strangely unbalanced crew, all 13s and only one 12. Is Brian O’Driscoll being considered for the role of inside centre, or at least providing cover there? How this pans out will be interesting. As such, it’s even more surprising that no utility back has been selected.
The third tighthead – a position where we really struggled to identify a worthy player – went to Matt Stevens rather than Euan Murray. Stevens looks somewhat past his best, but with Dan Cole and Adam Jones already universally agreed upon, the role of third man is of limited importance.
At fly-half, where Jonny Wilinson’s credentials were apparently re-considered at the last. Farrell has survived the late challenge and travels as one of only two 10s. He can consider himself a very lucky boy. It leaves Jonny Sexton with a virtual walk-in to the test team.
Robshaw Misses Out
Picture the scene. The English side you’ve captained have won four from four in the Six Nations, having beaten the All Blacks in November. Your leadership of the team has been roundly praised. Win your final game – a tricky one against a resurgent Wales in Cardiff – and you are a grand-slam winning captain in a Lions year. In short, you are in the box seat; immortality beckons.
But the game in Wales is a disaster. The Welsh – with a backrow containing two breakaways – play at a tempo that you cannot live with and the result is a hammering, 30-3. It even swings the championship their way on points difference. But at least the Heineken Cup to come, there is a chance of a reprieve, and your club has a manageable quarter-final, at home to a Munster side having a ho-hum season. But unthinkably, you lose, somehow allowing the Munster players to dominate collisions and the breakdown. Your own performance is totally dominated by some unknown fellow, Tommy Donnelly, or something. How has this happened? Suddenly, from Lions captain, you’re facing an anxious wait, and the best you can hope for is (Lions bingo moment) a stint as mideek captain, manning it up with the dirt trackers…
So it came to be that Chris Robshaw missed out on Lions selection. And it’s hard to argue with Gatland’s selection. In the event he’s chosen flankers with highly specialised talents, rather than hard working types who don’t excel in any particular area. On the openside, he has breakdown specialist Warburton and exceptional link-man Justin Tipuric. Both are specialist 7s. On the blind side he’s given himself healthy variety with an outstanding ball-carrier in Sean O’Brien, a super-fit all-action tackling machine in Dan Lydiate and a superb linout operator with the added bonus of terrific pace in Tom Croft.
Croft has nothing like the work rate of Robshaw, but he is a technician in the set piece and his outside break and fend can occasionally result in 50m gains (you could even say that Croft’s pace will be needed on the hard grounds – scatch off another Lions bingo square). It’s the specialist versus the generalist, and the specialist has won out. England might be content to put out backrows made up of three identikit six-and-a-halves, but that sort of rugby is anathema to Gatty, and he’s been vocal on the topic for over a year now.
Reprieve for the Irish
On saturday we thought the papers selecting nine Irish Lions were being generous to themselves in the extreme. We had it at seven. In the end, we upped it to eight, making room for Conor Murray late in the day. In the event they’ve got nine, one less than England but six more than Scotland. It doesn’t square with the Six Nations table. Gatland has essentially given these high quality players a reprieve: ‘Look, chaps’, he appears to be saying ‘the Six Nations was rubbish but you and I both know that Deccie was a busted flush and the team was a mess. I know you’re better than that and we’re going to put all that behind us and teach these Aussies a lesson about rugby’.
With Wales having come up just short against Australia in every recent encounter he knows he needs to add some of the Irish (specifically Leinster) guile and craft to the square-and-straight approach favoured by Wales, in order to make the difference. It looks like he’ll be going with the Welsh 12 and outside backs, plus Sexton and O’Driscoll – but don’t bet against Bowe squeezing in by Test time. They’ll bring some subtlety to proceedings, creating space, running angles, bringing the big Welsh runners into play in a more subtle fashion, rather than just trying to bash holes and getting nowhere.
Among the Irish selected, a number will be likely test starters. Sexton, Healy and BOD are in pole position, and the likes of O’Connell, O’Brien, Healsip and Bowe would have a very strong chance of making the test team once they bring their best form.
Those looking to complete a full house on their Lions Outrage bingo cards should be directed to English websites, where no doubt their low representation on the touring party will not be going down well. At the height of Robshaw-mania mid-Six Nations, the Torygraph projected a Lions team with no less than seven English forwards. This will not be coming to pass. Further outrage is likely to be garnered on the tour itself, where much of the English look like midweek material. Tom Youngs, Matt Stevens or Owen Farrell for the test team? No thanks.
One of the English forwards going is Nice Guy Dylan H*****y – it’s heavily ironic for Rory Best, for after the Ulster evisceration of the Saints in Franklins Gardens, containing a total Hartley-domination by the Armagh man, you would have got very long odds on Hartley going and Best not. Best has essentially played himself off the plane with some desperate lineout work in recent months. Hartley’s Northampton haven’t exactly been the toast of Europe this season, and he lost his England jumper to Tom Youngs – it’s hard to convince oneself he’s a richly deserving tourist.
Sam The Eagle is Captain
Gatland has looked past the huge experience and inspirational leadership of the two Irish candidates, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, instead sticking by his Welsh captain Sam Warburton. It looks a risky call. There have been doubts over Warb’s form and fitness over the last twelve months (O’Driscoll and O’Connell are also regularly on the treatment table, it must be said) and it wasn’t long ago he was out of the Welsh starting team, dropped for the electric Tipuric. It also appears he declined the opportunity to captain Wales in their final game, in a desire to focus on his own game. Selfless act, taking one for the team, or a shirking of his duties? In the event Wales played brilliantly and Warb was superb, so he probably deserves the benfit of any doubt.
It leaves the touring party looking very Welsh indeed. Welsh coaches, Welsh captain, large Welsh contingent. Given the large number of Welsh in the party, they might have responded better to a new, outsider’s voice. Is there a risk of the tour group breaking into factions? Gatland being Gatland, he doesn’t tend to pay lip service to politics (he once picked a team containing 13 Ospreys for Wales) and would be of the mind that his best man for the job is the best man for the job, and that’s that.
To be fair to Gatland, he has done his best to play down the significance of the role, even saying it will have no bearing on selection and he will happily pick a test team without his captain if that’s what’s required. Nonetheless, those steeped in – Skyhype alert – the culture and history of the Lions will know the significance of captaining the touring party. This is Sam’s moment, he must deliver on it in the matches themselves, which, although a sideshow to the main event of selection, can be worth a passing glance.