Leigh Halfpenny lucky to get the nod at Simon Zebo’s expense

The British and Irish Lions squad announcement followed the usual pattern — a majority of predictable selections, a few left field picks, some surprise omissions along with the customary bolter. Warren Gatland was always good for a few of those and in Ross Moriarty, Ben Te’o and Ireland’s Jared Payne, he didn’t disappoint.

Leigh Halfpenny lucky to get the nod at Simon Zebo’s expense

By picking 41 players, the second largest ever behind the 44 Clive Woodward set out with to New Zealand 12 years ago (and three more than was anticipated), Gatland has given himself a bit more leeway.

However, having won three of their five games in the Six Nations this season, there will be massive disappointment in Scotland at only having two players included in such a big touring party.

Gatland’s detractors will focus on the fact that Wales, after a disappointing season, have one more tourist on board than Ireland. The biggest casualty on that front, and one of the selections I would strongly disagree with, is that of Leigh Halfpenny over Simon Zebo.

Halfpenny has had a poor season for both Toulon and Wales where even his goalkicking has fallen well short of its usual high standards.

Other Irish players with reason to be disappointed include Donnacha Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Cian Healy and Keith Earls with Iain Henderson’s greater versatility at international level getting him the nod over Ryan.

The inclusion of Peter O’Mahony is fully merited and I expect him to not only thrive in this company but to emerge as one of the key leaders as the tour progresses.

England’s Joe Launchbury will feel aggrieved at losing out in the second row to fellow countryman Courtney Lawes, given that the Northampton man is a suspect scrummager, while the selection of a third English lock in Saracens’ George Kruis comes as no surprise to me.

My first impressions are of a very strong forward unit, with multiple ball winning options, big ball carriers and huge flexibility when it comes to choosing the back five combinations. That said, Harlequins tight-head Kyle Sinclair is very fortunate to be included with Scotland’s WP Nel ruled out through injury while, based purely on form, the omission of England captain Dylan Hartley was predictable.

By opting for former Leinster centre Ben Te’o — who has only started once for England — and Scarlets Jonathan Davies, Gatland has retained the option of sticking to his traditional direct running style in midfield in addition to utilising the more subtle skills offered by Payne and Jonathan Joseph.

Ringrose must have been close based on the selection of Joseph and the fact that Payne has huge experience of playing both at full-back and centre along with his Super rugby exposure with the Auckland Blues tipped the balance in his favour.

The back three choices are flooded with pace, excellent aerial skills and great finishing power, which adds significantly to the way that Gatland proposes to shape his team to beat New Zealand.

Selections of this nature rarely win universal approval but it is clear the coaching group has gone with a mix of players capable of adapting and playing in a variety of different ways.

The frustrating thing from their perspective is, having meticulously weighed up the merits of one player over the other, the 41-man squad announced, in all probability, won’t even make it as far as the departure lounge in Heathrow Airport together.

Some poor soul is going to fall foul to injury. Of the eight Munster players selected in 2009, Tomás O’Leary and Jerry Flannery were ruled out injured with Alan Quinlan losing out to suspension as was Dylan Hartley in 2013, which makes his exclusion this time out even more painful.

The necessity to summon a raft of replacements should be reduced somewhat by bringing an expanded party but there will be a requirement to replace some battered bodies meaning the agony and ecstasy associated with Lions selection — or non selection as the case may be — will extend further into May and June.

Right now the management will be happy with their deliberations and, despite the few questionable inclusions that are always part and parcel of these announcements, it looks like an exciting and powerful squad. It will have to be given the quality of opposition they will face.

Tour manager John Spencer told The Daily Telegraph in advance of the announcement: “It will be the strongest Lions squad ever to leave these shores.”

The last time I heard that was before the last sojourn to New Zealand back in 2005 and we know what happened then.

Yesterday’s announcement marks only the beginning. There will be many twists and turns to be negotiated yet, even in advance of arriving in Auckland on May 31.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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