This Wednesday Warren Gatland will announce his squad for the Lions tour to New Zealand, writes Iain Morrison. Everyone has their own opinions but only the head coach knows who he wants and much will depend upon Gatland’s approach.
Does the Kiwi try to bully the All Blacks into submission or take his cue from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland and take the hosts on, ball in hand? There will be the odd bolter, while a few fancied names will find themselves out in the cold, although any number of disappointed reserves can expect a call interrupting their summer holidays. There will be injuries, plenty of injuries. The only thing I can claim with any certainty about my 37-strong squad below is that it won’t be right.
1. Jack McGrath, Mako Vunipola, Cian Healy
Ally Dickinson would have had a shout as the third cab off the rank had he been fit, but he isn’t so he doesn’t.
The No.1 shirt is a strong one for the Lions and any of the above could make it into the Test XV, with McGrath the favourite as the plane takes off. Wales’ Rob Evans could edge Cian Healy but on balance we think not.
Unlucky: Joe Marler and Rob Evans
2. Jamie George, Ken Owens, Rory Best
Fraser Brown has an outside chance but the Glasgow Warriors hooker lost his cool in the cauldron of Twickenham with a calamitous yellow card that set the tone for a torrid afternoon for the visitors, and these things tend to stick in a coach’s mind. Owens was the best performer in the Six Nations when Rory Best was below par but the Irishman sneaks in ahead of the ticking time bomb that is Dylan Hartley, if only to captain the Wednesday side.
Unlucky: Hartley and Brown.
3. Tadhg Furlong, Dan Cole, John Ryan
What we said about Dickinson also applies to WP Nel in the tighthead jersey. Less strength here than loosehead as Cole is running on reputation. In contrast John Ryan is a nuts-and-bolts tighthead who is Mr Reliable for Munster and Ireland and more experienced than England reserve Kyle Sinckler.
4. Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje
A great blend of experience and youth with both being stand-out performers at the highest level for their respective countries.
5. Joe Launchbury, Iain Henderson, George Kruis
The big question here is whether Kruis has left it too late to make the cut? The English lock makes his return for Saracens against Saints this afternoon and, while everyone else is on their knees at the end of the season, Kruis will be peaking nicely for the first Test. Launchbury and Henderson are two more athletic choices and the Irishman is versatile with it. The Lions head coach must decide whether to gamble with Kruis, opt for Courtney Lawes or go with what he knows and take big Richie Gray again.
Unlucky: Courtney Lawes and
Richie and Jonny Gray
6. Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien
A trio of Irish bad boys who are there to bully the bullies…although Stander is nursing a shoulder.
7. Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric
Sam Kennedy-Warburton is widely touted to lead the Lions once again, a decent player and a decent bloke, but he doesn’t appear to have the inspirational qualities required for this squad to go and grab this series by the throat. The Kiwis almost always field specialist sevens so Gatland will be cognisant of doing likewise. He will automatically look to Wales’ twin Test players but Scotland’s Hamish Watson plays with a dynamism and aggression that neither Welshman can match. Watson could steal a few headlines but only if he is first selected and that appears unlikely.
Unlucky: Hamish Watson
8. Billy Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau
Jamie Heaslip has just had an operation on his back which puts his participation in doubt but we would have opted for Faletau in any event despite him playing second fiddle to Ross Moriarty in the Six Nations. Who would you want coming off the bench to win the third and decisive Test against the Blacks? Taulupe or Ross or Jamie? Yup…me too.
9. Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs
The first two are almost certain to travel because they offer a subtle contrast in styles while both do the basics very well. I would take Scotland’s Ali Price, who is in the form of his life and will make life mighty uncomfortable for Greig Laidlaw next season. Again it comes down to style and ambition. If you want to win matches then Price is a game breaker. Ben Youngs is more experienced and Gatland will go with what he knows.
Unlucky: Ali Price
10. Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell
George Ford is the missing man, at least in this squad, but he is a defensive liability and a little less impressive when his forwards are unable to bully the opposition as mercilessly as England’s usually do. Russell gets the nod ahead of Dan Bigger because the Welsh midfield is toothless with Biggar at ten. Russell plays flat to the gain line and the range and vision of his distribution is equal to Sexton’s, which is saying something.
Unlucky: Ford and Biggar
11. Anthony Watson and George North
Scotland could have two wingers who could go on tour but there is little prospect of both Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland making the cut and there’s a possibility that neither will travel. Both Scots are better at defusing aerial bombs than George North, who looks a shadow of his old self – as you would too if your bell had been rung as often as the winger’s. But remember who picks the team…so North is likely to go which means that the twin Scots are fighting an uphill battle.
Unlucky: Maitland, Seymour and Ireland’s Simon Zebo may all miss out
12. Robbie Henshaw and Duncan Taylor
Henshaw goes by popular acclaim and he will be favourite to start at 12 for the Test if Owen Farrell is selected at fly-half. Inside centre is not a position of strength for the Lions, although Taylor has a live chance of travelling. He is just back from injury, fresh, taking part in European and domestic play-offs with the best club in the country and he covers every spot from 12 through 15.
13. Jonathan Joseph, Jon Davies
Jonathan Joseph is not as good as Scotland made him look at Twickenham – Dublin underlined that much – but he has the raw pace to ask some questions and dig himself out of any defensive holes he may fall into. Jon Davies has little current form on his side but he does have pedigree and experience and it can’t hurt his cause that his national coach picks the squad. He and Taylor add some beef to a welterweight midfield.
Unlucky: England’s Ben Te’o
14. Liam Williams, Elliot Daly
Elliot Daly is versatile and elusive, the Jordi Barrett of the Lions squad, comfortable at 13, 14 or 15, a really talented footballer. Liam Williams is slight, quick, secure in the air with vision and intelligence; equally happy at wing/full-back.
15. Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny
A tricky one, full-back, because Ireland’s Rob Kearney is injured and out of the reckoning. We have opted for Leigh Halfpenny over Mike Brown because that gives the squad the best attacking 15 – Hogg – and the best defensive full-back in Europe. Halfpenny’s goal kicking will come in handy while Watson and Williams both back up at 15.
Unlucky: Mike Brown