After months of speculation, the Lion is out of the bag.
Now that Warren Gatland has revealed the 37 players he has chosen for the tour of Australia, the focus will shift on paring that broader selection down to those entrusted with a starting place in the side for the key opening Test in Brisbane on June 23.
Watching the squad unveiled live on Sky Sports yesterday morning, it was difficult not to feel the adrenaline rush that accompanies such an announcement. For the players in contention, who had no indication in advance of what was about to unfold, you can only appreciate the mix of euphoria and despair.
To win a Lions series requires getting many things right, squad selection being the most important, but even then you will encounter numerous things outside your control, most notably injury. Given the quality of players involved in certain key sectors, especially back row, I think Gatland has got it just about right. England captain Chris Robshaw is probably the most unfortunate to lose out, given that many saw him as a potential leader of the squad not so long ago. Ryan Jones and Kelly Brown, who both led their countries in the Six Nations, will also feel disappointed, as will Peter O’Mahony. The back row always has the highest attrition rate on tour so one of that quartet are sure to be involved yet.
The biggest issue for me, captaincy apart, is the selection of just two out-halves with no other player in the 15 remaining backs selected with any experience whatsoever of playing in that crucial role at Test level.
Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, a worthy selection, is by all accounts the designated cover at No 10 in an emergency but I have no doubt that if either Jonny Sexton or Owen Farrell are injured on tour, a replacement will be summoned.
Problem is, if that happens a week before the Test series, the Lions will be left badly exposed.
Sexton is a shoe-in for the Test slot and carries a massive burden on his shoulders as the success of failure of the series could come down to him remaining fit. Farrell has shown the vulnerability of youth in recent months and he looked very tetchy in the Six Nations against France and Wales and was thoroughly outplayed by Jonny Wilkinson in Sunday’s Heineken Cup final.
It was widely expected that Gatland would announce a panel of 38 players, and I just wonder if he is waiting to see what happens in the semi-finals of the French championship.
He did sound out Wilkinson as to his availability but the former England fly-half is committed to Toulon as they chase a domestic and European double. What odds however of Wilkinson filling that 38th slot if Toulon are beaten in the Top 14 semi-final? If not, I would add either James Hook or Dan Bigger to the party before they depart. Watch that space.
While it was widely expected Sam Warburton would lead the squad given his close working relationship Gatland, I still view this as a massive leap of faith by the former Ireland coach. Warburton will only begin to appreciate what lies in store in Australia after yesterday’s squad announcement. Despite the fact that he led Wales in the 2011 World Cup, he now faces a challenge on a different level in terms of demands and intensity.
That is why I would have entrusted Brian O’Driscoll with the captain’s armband. From the minute the squad assemble and have their first collective meeting, O’Driscoll would have commanded immediate respect and even a sense of awe given that some of the party were only kids when he burst onto the scene for the Lions 12 years ago. The majority of the players might never have met Warburton. I would have bypassed Paul O’Connell for the role in order to give him the time and space to get over all his recent injuries.
Given that he has never been on a Lions tour in the past, Warburton will be learning what it’s all about on the hoof. It will be a daunting experience. Uniquely, he will be able to draw on the experience of two former Lions captains in O’Driscoll and O’Connell. There is a slight danger however that the presence of the two talismanic Irishmen could impact on his authority and leadership in the eyes of other players by virtue of their very presence.
From that perspective, Warburton must be seen to earn his place in the Test side and lead accordingly. You can take it as read that the Australian media will launch a series of attacks on the touring squad from the outset. I can almost guarantee now that there will be a concerted media campaign, led by former Wallabies, launched against the illegality of their scrum or their technique at the breakdown. Warburton, who is comparatively inexperienced as an international leader, will have to be ready to deal with all those outside influences. He is however a very impressive young man, a superb player and I sincerely hope he’ll be able to cope with the intensity that will take over his life in the next few months.
Elsewhere, I am surprised Rory Best has failed to make the squad, despite the recent blip with this lineout throwing. Simon Zebo also has cause to be disappointed and the selection of Sean Maitland is one I have some difficulty with. He only arrived in Scotland a few months ago from the Canterbury Crusaders and was nowhere near making the New Zealand squad. What message does it give Down Under that he is already adjudged to be in the top four wingers in the four home countries? I think Zebo’s left boot and his ability to play at full-back would have made him a more logical selection. That unfortunate foot injury against England could not have been worse timed.
On the flip side, Tommy Bowe has, deservedly, won the confidence of Gatland based on his return from injury in recent weeks.
Other concerns? Richie Gray has played no rugby for over two months and is badly in need of game time but Sale’s season is over. Given the recent injury issues surrounding O’Connell and Dan Lydiate, Gatland will be praying they all stay fit. Overall, I think it is a very strong squad with the capacity to field an incredible lineout platform to supplement an immensely powerful scrum. They are always the foundation stone’s to building a successful Test side and Gatland has the building blocks in place to produce a very competitive Test unit. Beyond that the one intangible required is a little bit of luck. Let the adventure begin.
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