11 Irish Lions
Rory Best, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are all set for their second British & Irish Lions Tour, as Ireland enjoyed an excellent return of 11 tourists in this year’s 41 man squad. Five from Leinster and three apiece from both Munster and Ulster, there will be a healthy green representation in New Zealand this summer.
There are very few gripes to be had with the selection from an Irish perspective – Donnacha Ryan misses out in second row as Iain Henderson powerfully forces himself in, Cian Healy is just behind Joe Marler in the pecking order, while Simon Zebo, Keith Earls & Garry Ringrose will all have been in the mix for spots in the backline. We could yet see some of them feature in New Zealand however, as injuries inevitably & unfortunately impact proceedings.
A heroic showing against England and some dogged performances for Munster see Peter O’Mahony make the plane alongside teammate CJ Stander, as both backrows have played a vital role in Munster’s resurgence this year. Tadhg Furlong’s breakthrough season continues, while Jack McGrath & Robbie Henshaw are rewarded for their consistency and brilliance over the last number of months.
Jared Payne is probably the most surprising of the 11 named, as the Ulster star has only recently returned from a troubling injury. A well respected operator with buckets of experience and a varied skillset, his presence could yet play a vital role in Warren Gatland’s touring party. One of the more underrated players in Europe, it’ll be interesting to see where he features on the pitch and the impact he has off it.
A Lonely Flight from Glasgow
Despite their most impressive Six Nations in recent memory, Scotland are rewarded with only two spots in this year’s touring group. It’s extremely harsh on a team that have made huge progress under Vern Cotter, but individually, they just don’t eclipse their competitors in some tightly contested selections.
The Gray brothers are both unfortunate to have been fighting for positions in the most competitive area of the squad, and that’s been their downfall. Everything about Jonny Gray says that he’s a Lions player, and had it been either of the last two tours, he probably would have made it. Worth remembering he’s still only 23, and he will get his hands on that famous red jersey at some point.
WP Nel is another that would have been included if fit, while Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones are others that may have been considered had injuries not gone against them. Hamish Watson can count himself unlucky in the backrow, while Warren Gatland will prefer the reliability of Dan Biggar to the flair of Finn Russell.
A frustrating afternoon for Scottish fans and players alike, as their contribution doesn’t reflect the strides they’ve made over the last four years .
The Other Surprises…
Arguably the biggest surprise of today’s Lions announcement is the literal size of the squad. At 41 players, Gatland has picked just 3 less than Clive Woodward in 2005 – a decision that ultimately backfired, and was hugely criticized thereafter. The nature of the game has evolved to require a larger panel, but with Gatland naming 3/4 players more than expected, the entire dynamic of the squad eluded everyone’s expectations.
The imposing nature of England centre Te’o obviously caught the eye of Gatland, as the Worcester Warriors midfielder made an impact each time he was introduced by England in this year’s Six Nations. He plays the type of game Gatland likes, and he’ll offer that directional running that the Welsh coach enjoys so much.
Similar with Ross Moriarty – an impressive Six Nations campaign for Wales has seen his shares skyrocket, but with so many players in the squad able to cover both 6 & 8, his inclusion is something of a surprise. A benefactor of the increased squad size, but one few can argue with based on merit.
Kyle Sinckler is another name few expected in the squad until initial reports emerged last week, but the young English international’s mobility separates him from other contending for a tighthead berth. A good prospect who benefitted from the misfortune and injury trouble that befell Scotland’s WP Nel, and a player that will take a lot from the experience of this trip.
Is there anyone that can feel more aggrieved by their non-selection as Joe Launchbury? England’s star during the Six Nations, the Wasps second-row built himself into an incredibly rich vein of form at (seemingly) the perfect time. But just as Donnacha Ryan & the Gray brothers learnt, the second-row is a crowded place at the moment and it’s extremely hard to get your nose in there. The most unlucky of all.
From potential captain in New Zealand to potential captain of England’s tour to Argentina, Dylan Hartley becomes the third successive English captain to be left behind by the Lions. His poor run of form put an end to his touring aspirations, and Gatland just wasn’t convinced by the Kiwi born hooker. The exciting Jamie George has leapfrogged him here, and Hartley may find himself in the same uncomfortable position the next time Eddie Jones sits down to deliberate on his own side.
James Haskell, George Ford & Mike Brown have all been deemed surprise omissions, but in truth, all three were unlikely to make it off the back of some indifferent performances. None of them have much of a previous relationship with Gatland, so there was little credit in the bank for him to rely on.
Gavin Henson’s omission however is perhaps the most unfortunate of all.
Can they Win the Series?
On paper, yes, they could.
It’s an extremely strong squad from Warren Gatland, and even if you don’t agree with all 41 men selected, it’s difficult to argue that he hasn’t picked the right names in the right places. He has a number of world class operators in that 41 man panel, with the right blend of attitude, experience, ability and presence to pose a threat to any side in the world.
But as we all know, playing New Zealand, in New Zealand is a monumental task – it is Everest (Jim Telfer plug) – and it cannot be taken lightly. The Lions have done it once before, and for them to do it again would be the greatest achievement of Warren Gatland’s coaching career.
Anything is possible in sport, but even with an encouraging squad announcement like that, it’s difficult to look past New Zealand celebrating a series win at the end of the second test in June.