WARREN Gatland’s squad should be filled with battle-hardened warriors, not those he hopes will suddenly hit the ground running after months on the sidelines.
LIONS coach Warren Gatland announces his playing squad for the trip Down Under on Tuesday which will at least have the benefit of silencing all the media speculation which is approaching fever pitch.
This is my choice because second guessing the coach’s pick is a mug’s game. I have opted for 38 players, because I think Gatland will need them, and I have gone for 16 backs and 22 forwards, nine of whom belong to the front row union for the very same reason. I have tried to leave emotion and patriotism out of the equation and pick purely on form.
That has resulted in 14 Welshmen which is only to be expected, ten from Ireland after several star names returned to action in recent weeks, nine Englishmen and five Scots. I have not included Greig Laidlaw, despite his obvious merits, or Matt Scott, who will surely be there in 2017 if he misses out on this tour.
There is no place for the Scottish, English or Irish skippers in my squad which may leave the Wednesday XV looking for leadership from an unlikely quarter.
Jamie Heaslip went backwards this season and Chris Robshaw gives way to Sean O’Brien who can play across the back row. Robshaw falls between two stools, he is not big and bruising enough to justify taking as a blindside flanker and he is simply not good enough to merit a place ahead of the two Welsh specialist sevens in his favoured position. Kelly Brown is in a similar situation as Robshaw, unlucky that the competition is so fierce in the third row.
Sam Warburton remains the likeliest captain. Ladbrokes stopped taking bets on him last week after the Welshman attracted a ton of money with the odds against him collapsing. No one in the Principality can keep schtum so the rumours are most likely true.
There is an argument to be made that those players recently returned to fitness after a long injury will be fresher and better able to handle the rigours of a long tour than rivals who have slogged their way through the entire season. I disagree. Lawrence Dallaglio played every minute of every match in the 2003 World Cup. It didn’t do him much harm and most players will get a few weeks R&R to recharge the batteries before flying to Hong Kong for the opening match against the Barbarians on 1 June.
Gatland should opt for battle-hardened warriors rather than crossing his fingers and offering up a small prayer that those who have been sat on the side-lines for months on end suddenly hit the ground running. On this basis I have left out Dan Lydiate (Player of the Six Nations last season) and I have overlooked Tommy Bowe in favour of Sean Maitland, although Gatland is rumoured to feel diferently. The Kiwi has terrorised Aussie defences in Super Rugby before now, he once scored four tries in a game against the Brumbies, and his straight line speed will be an asset on the firm tracks Down Under.
I have picked just the one player who has not played for months in Scotland’s second row Richie Gray. If that proves wishful thinking then so be it, but the big man was spotted taking a fitness test last week on Murrayfield’s back pitches under the watchful gaze of Lions’ doc James Robson and he may yet turn out for an invitation team before his flight departs.
Several players like Simon Zebo are short of matches but at least he is back playing again. The Munsterman is comfortable on the wing or at fullback which is why I dropped Rob Kearney from my original selection and replaced him with an extra forward in the form of Ryan Jones who will probably play more rugby in the second than the third row.
I was tempted to throw winger Christian Wade into the Lions den as my bolter because the little Wasp is widely touted as the next Jason Robinson. If he goes he will become the first uncapped player since Will Greenwood in 1997 to represent the Lions. However, after looking at a selection of his tries on YouTube, most of them come from sheer speed alone rather than the Fred Astaire footwork that made Robinson such a handful and this squad already has pace to burn out wide.
With ten matches in the space of five weeks and squad numbers limited, versatility is an advantage on a player’s resumé. Billy Twelvetrees doubles up as second five-eighth or third choice fly-half and his huge left boot (Sexton and Farrell are both right footed) will come in handy when looking for exit strategies. Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi are equally at home operating at inside or outside centre. England’s Tom Wood is comfortable at 6 or 8 and Ryan Jones covers 4, 6 and 8. England’s eight Ben Morgan plays just one position but he plays it very well. He was outstanding against the All Blacks last November and the same against Saracens last weekend. The third choice tighthead was a problem position but Euan Murray gets the nod over Ireland’s Mike Ross. At hooker, here is an argument for taking Tom Youngs, a former centre, but Ireland’s Richardt Strauss offers the same dynamism as the Englishman with better arrows thrown into the bargain.
Gatland will probably opt for seasoned experience over callow youth, ball players over bashers and good tourists over lousy ones. But his first consideration over and above all else will be to pick a squad that will win at least two Test matches.
The last Lions series victory came back in 1997 at the very dawn of the professional era so they badly need a result Down Under.
• Iain Morrison will host an online webchat this Tuesday (30 Apr) at midday to discuss the squad announcement. Access the chat, or set a reminder, by clicking here.