CARDIFF, WALES – Lions fans the world over are waiting with baited breath ahead of next Wednesday’s tour squad announcement. Debating who should be in the squad, starting XV and who should captain the tour has been a favourite pastime of rugby fans in clubhouses and pubs across the globe over the past few months. Indeed, much of this recent Six Nations tournament was about offering players a final chance to make their case for selection on the international stage.
Head Coach Warren Gatland and his staff are faced with difficult decisions in almost every position as they look to pick the 37 player combination they believe is best equipped to travel to New Zealand and defeat the All Blacks in what will be a titanic three test series. Here we look at some of the positions where those decisions stand out to this author as the most difficult and contentious, leaving Gatland with no choice but to omit some very prominent and talented players. He has shown the mettle to make controversial selection choices in the past, most famously when he left the rugby world stunned by dropping Brian O’Driscoll from the match day squad for the third test in Australia four years ago after stellar performances in the first two tests; he was ultimately vindicated as the Lions went on to claim a series victory for the first time in sixteen years. So it will be again; Gatland is guaranteed to leave certain players and fans disgruntled, but the legacy of his selection policy will live and die with the test series result.
The first position which poses a fascinating conundrum is hooker. Ireland’s Rory Best seems certain to go given his skillset, experience and leadership skills, and Wales’ Ken Owens made an excellent case for selection with his standout performances in the Six Nations, but question marks remain over England captain Dylan Hartley. Hartley has been a key figure in the resurgence of the English national team under Eddie Jones; the perfect captain to embody the more confrontational and combative approach Jones wanted to instill. However, he blotted his disciplinary copy book once again last December, being handed six week ban as a result of a red card received for a swinging arm on Leinster’s Sean O’Brien while playing for his club Northampton in the European Champions Cup. This has raised doubts over whether Hartley truly has put his chequered disciplinary past, which has seen him spend a total of 60 weeks of his career banned, behind him.
With the Lions returning to Hartley’s country of birth, concerns that he may be targeted by the opposition for extra provocation are legitimate, and the tour can ill-afford a major disciplinary distraction. Simultaneously, second choice England hooker Jamie George has been in consistently excellent form for his club Saracens, and began replacing Hartley ever earlier in this year’s Six Nations matches, perhaps suggesting that Jones sees Hartley’s influence waning, with George as the future. George is arguably the better line out thrower and more dynamic ball carrier, so with Gatland likely to go with three hookers as he did in Australia, it is entirely possible that Hartley, having recently captained England to a world record equaling 17 consecutive test match victories, could miss out.
The third scrum half is another intriguing debate. Ireland’s Conor Murray and Wales’ Rhys Webb are surely certain to be on the plane, leaving Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Greig Laidlaw as the most likely contenders for the third spot. Youngs has Lions test experience, having started in the second test against Australia in 2013, however his inconsistent form for England is a concern. Care is an energetic, sniping 9 but has never been able to consistently make the starting position for England his own. Laidlaw is a reliable, competent scrum half without the panache of Care or Youngs, but with perhaps the best kicking game of the three. Against the strong forward packs in New Zealand this could be key, and Laidlaw’s leadership experience having captained Scotland 33 times could make him the favourite.
How Gatland chooses to manage the fly half position will also be extremely interesting. Ireland’s Jonny Sexton looks certain to be in the squad along with Owen Farrell who can cover fly half or inside centre, and history suggests Gatland will take one more specialist number ten. Paddy Jackson played superbly for Ireland in the first two matches of the six nations while covering for the injured Sexton, while George Ford has cemented himself as the starting 10 for England, and Scotland’s Finn Russell has a game which could be suited to playing against kiwi sides, with his tendency to play flat and bring ball carries on to him. Throw the defensive capabilities of Wales’ Dan Biggar into the mix and this is a true selection headache.
Fans will be keen to see how Gatland balances his squad. Given England’s success over the past two seasons, one would expect the coach to harness that winning culture and pick a strong English contingent, however in Australia Gatland displayed a tendency to pick the players he knew best, starting ten Welshmen in the third test. In this year’s Six Nations Scotland finally showed signs of their progress under Vern Cotter, although their capitulation against England at Twickenham, and the sound beating Glasgow took at the hands of Saracens away in the quarter final of the European Champions Cup two weeks ago will raise concerns that perhaps this Scotland crop cannot produce its best away from home in big games.
Captaining a Lions tour is one of the greatest honours which can be bestowed upon a British or Irish player. Lions captains often become rugby legends in their own right; Willie John McBride, Finaly Calder, Martin Johnson and Brian O’Driscoll will all go down as some of the greatest leaders ever to play the game. This year’s captaincy choice seems to be a two horse race between two of Wales’ finest players; talismanic second row Alun Wyn Jones and world-class openside flanker Sam Warburton. Warburton was tour captain in 2013, but was replaced at the helm by Jones for the decisive third test due to injury. Jones has also replaced Warburton as captain of the Welsh national team, a move which many believe has allowed Warburton to focus more on his own game and rediscover his best form.
The selection discussion will continue among fans right up until the announcement, and whichever choices are made makes will fuel much more debate. Wednesday will give us an engrossing insight into how the Lions plans to defeat the All Blacks and claim their first test series win in New Zealand since 1971.
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