Dylan Hartley out, no Rob Kearney, James Haskell, Jamie Heaslip or Keith Earls, and neither of the Gray brothers were picked to go to New Zealand! But British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland’s most astonishing call was the omission of Big Joe Launchbury!
The England lock produced two man-of-the-match performances in the Six Nations, was nominated for player of the tournament, and is the captain of the English premiership’s table-topping Wasps! His exclusion will be the most felt when the Lions clash with the All Blacks duo of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.
Gatland’s 41-man squad comprises 16 players from England’s Six Nations championship team, 12 Welshmen, 11 of Ireland’s finest and just two Scots. The somewhat surprising selections include England wing Jack Nowell, Ireland fullback Jared Payne and Wales No 8 Ross Moriaty.
Wales openside flanker Sam Warburton gets the honour of matching England legend Martin Johnson as the only man to skipper the Lions on two tours. Those are big boots to fill, but he will have Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones on his shoulder, with Ireland captain Rory Best and England playmaker Owen Farrell all quality leaders in their own right.
The big question is whether this squad can challenge the All Blacks. In a one-off Test you would think it’s possible, but in a three-Test series, where two will take place at Eden Park, you would be right to think it unlikely.
The gravest concern for Gatland must be his front row. Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong is the only raw beast he has as a tighthead to take on the New Zealand pack, and 80 minutes of high-intensity rugby will require a change in the latter part of the Tests. This is more than a concern as England’s buckling Dan Cole is a yellow card, and Kyle Sinkler has hardly been tested at this sort of level.
The omission of Hartley is the correct one as he would have a suspension hanging over his head way before the first Test kicked off – the Kiwis would be that adept at riling him up to sufficient levels in the midweek games.
The locks are all quality, but none aside from maybe Wyn Jones has Launchbury’s grunt. Maybe Ireland’s Iain Henderson could complete the second row, though it’s an athletic bunch that has been selected, in line with what they might expect with the pace of the games on tour.
There’s a feast of good loose forwards and a variety of back-row combinations that will concern the All Blacks coaching brains trust.
It will be interesting to see which combination of backs are chosen for the Tests. A conservative approach and the thought of winning games with penalty kicks is never going to happen. The manner in which the New Zealand teams have taken to the Super Rugby competition attest to more tries being needed to beat the All Blacks rather than relying on a late penalty to clinch it.
The possibility of inside backs like Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Farrell and Jonathan Joseph – with big Ben Te’o lurking on the bench – supported by the likes of Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson and George North out wide promises an enthralling backline contest.
A group of 41 players is a large squad, but you can be sure that with the northern hemisphere season still to be completed, followed by tour-opening matches against the Blues, Crusaders, Highlanders, Maori All Blacks and then Chiefs, the compliment of players will change long before the Lions reach Eden Park for the first Test on 24 June!
Gatland has gone for a mixture of experience blended with exciting youth. It’s understandable that Gatland went heavy on Welsh players – all of the home nations coaches would have done exactly the same, knowing their charges, what makes them tick and how to inspire, motivate and instill the belief they will need to conquer the All Blacks.
Many of the tough questions will be asked during the first two weeks, and not many would bet against the All Blacks winning the first Test at Eden Park. But Gatland is a cunning coach who is heading back to his homeland to prove a point or two.
British and Irish Lions:
Backs: Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Leigh Halfpenny, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg, Jonathan Joseph, Conor Murray, George North, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Seymour, Ben Te’o, Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Ben Youngs
Forwards: Rory Best, Dan Cole, Taulupe Faletau, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler, Jack McGrath, Ross Moriarty, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton (captain)