Iain Morrison: Gatland goes for the tried and tested

Warren Gatland, right, with his Lions captain, Sam Warburton.

Warren Gatland, right, with his Lions captain, Sam Warburton.

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The first and obvious thing to say about the British and Irish Lions’ squad is that the wrong man was picking it.

Warren Gatland got the gig by default after Joe Schmidt made himself unavailable for selection. No one seriously disputes the fact that Schmidt would have had a 
better chance of rolling over the All Blacks, having already done exactly that in Chicago. Gatland is the second-choice coach, which a few disgruntled Scots should bear in mind this morning.

The second thing is that the Kiwi has picked a big squad. Most 
pundits anticipated 37 but this one boasts forty-one bodies, nineteen of whom are backs. Given the attritional nature of a forwards’ nine to five and the fact that most matchday squads boast thirteen big men, he could have tilted the balance even more towards them.

Gatland is an able coach but he lacks those twin ingredients that you fancy the Lions might need to win this series – inspiration and its close cousin, imagination.

He favours the competence and experience of England’s Ben Youngs over the match-winning talents of Ali Price. He opts for Jonathan Davies on the Welsh centre’s form of four years ago over the rising star that is Duncan
Taylor, Dan Biggar’s boot over Finn Russell’s vision and the the set-piece solidity of Joe Marler over the all-round playing excellence of Cian Healy or Rob Evans.

Think back to 1997, when two young rugby playings props, Tom Smith, of Scotland, and Ireland’s Paul Wallace, usurped the favourites on the plane, Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree, in the Lions’ winning Test team.

Incidentally, the latter is Gatland’s assistant this time round but seems to have forgotten any lessons he learned 20 years ago.

When it comes to captaincy,
 Gatland opted for the tried and tested Sam Warburton who, a little like his coach, is a safe pair of hands rather than a “once-more- unto-the-breach” type of leader.

So much of the modern game is pre-determined that a cool head who can communicate effectively with the referee will do an able job but surely any attempt to scale rugby’s summit – and beating the All Blacks at home is arguably the highest pinnacle in any sport – surely needs its leader to have a little more… well, leadership.

To put it another way, ask 
yourself if Gatland would appoint Martin Johnson as captain over Warburton were England’s inspirational World Cup-winning skipper magically 30 years old and available?

Where Gatland has gambled a little is his selection of two 
long-term injuries in George Kruis and Jared Payne.

Both are key players, or could be, if they can stay fit and on the field.

The fact that they take to this tour fresh, while the many of the Lions will be on their hands 
and knees at the end of a long season, adds weight to their
 inclusion.

The Scots have a paltry two in the squad, despite winning three of their five Six Nations matches, but you get the feeling that Gatland, for all his talk about potential Scottish players, had most of his squad parked on the plane to Auckland long before the Six Nations.

Moreover, the Lions don’t play many Tests at home and Scotland failed to win either of their games on the road against big,
physical sides. Things could have been very different had they brought their A-game to Twickenham but, when the pressure was on against a very good England team, too many men in blue went missing in action.

And Scots have been a little unlucky. Both of the first-choice props and centres would have been in contention had they been fit, but Ally Dickinson and WP Nel, Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones all chose a bad season to pick up long-term injuries. Alex Dunbar just picked a bad season to have a bad season.

Taylor might yet make an appearance, while Hamish Watson (the UK’s answer to Ardie Savea), Sean Maitland, Ali Price and Finn Russell should all keep their phones on.

If Paddy Power open a market in injury replacements jetting in, don’t bet yourself short, there will be plenty.

“There is no clear number one, two or three in some positions,” said Gatland when talking about his squad.

I’d wager he has 13 of his 15 man Test XV already pencilled in, 
maybe more.

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