Eight Irishmen have been named in the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa this summer with Connacht centre Bundee Aki one of the big surprise inclusion. Yet there were no places in Warren Gatland’s touring party to take on the world champion Springboks for fly-half and Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, lock James Ryan and centre Garry Ringrose.
As expected, Ireland stars Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, and Robbie Henshaw were named on Thursday for a return to Lions colours. All four toured New Zealand four years ago with Murray and Furlong Test starters in the drawn series with the All Blacks. This will be scrum-half Murray’s third tour and he will be joined by Munster team-mate Tadhg Beirne, a first-time selection alongside Leinster prop Andrew Porter, and back row Jack Conan.
It comes as Alun Wyn Jones has been confirmed on Thursday as the British & Irish Lions captain for this summer’s tour to South Africa and Test series against the Springboks.
The Originals, 1888— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) May 6, 2021
The Invincibles, 1974
The heroes of 1997
The Unbeaten Tours of 2013, 2017
Over to you Class of 2021 - Time to write a new chapter in our history 🦁
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Jones, at 35, the oldest Lions captain of the professional era, was unveiled ahead of Thursday’s 36-man squad announcement. The Wales skipper, who led his country to the Guinness Six Nations in March is rugby’s most capped player with 157 Test appearances and has played in the last nine Lions Tests since the last tour to South Africa in 2009. He will become just the fourth player to go four Lions tours, joining Irish trio Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson and Brian O’Driscoll.
He is also the latest lock to be handed the honour of leading the Lions following the likes of Paul O’Connell, Martin Johnson, and McBride. Jones succeeds fellow Welsh forward Sam Warburton as captain, who skippered the Lions to a series win over Australia in 2013 and the drawn series with the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2017.
“Obviously very proud, very privileged," Jones said. "To be selected in the squad is initially what you want to be hearing as a player but to have the armband as well is as I say, a privilege in the fact of the players that have gone before and what those players have achieved in this jersey and for their respective home nations.
“I had a call from Gats on Sunday evening, actually a missed call so I thought I better give him call him back. We had a quick chat and I accepted, obviously.”
Prior to the unveiling of Jones as tour captain, Gatland confirmed the squad had been extended to 37 and not the expected 36, an indication of the difficult selection issues facing him.
"In all my time in coaching this was the most challenging squad I've had to pick,” Gatland said, adding there had been: "Some really tough calls."
One of those undoubtedly was the decision not to select Sexton, a Test starter in 2013 and 2017 and world player of the year in 2018. Sexton’s age, he will be 36 before the tour, and durability given his recent concussive episodes, may have counted against the Ireland playmaker. He has not played since failing a Head Injury Assessment in Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final win at Exeter Chiefs on April 10. Gatland has instead chosen Scotland fly-half Finn Russell to tour alongside Dan Biggar of Wales and England’s Owen Farrell.
Ryan’s omission is a major surprise given he had been touted as a possible Lions Test starter but he may have suffered from a loss of form since a concussion against Scotland during the Six Nations.
England No.8 Billy Vunipola and centre Man Tuilagi are other notable omissions from the 37-man squad.
There are 11 English, 10 Welsh, and eight Scots alongside the Irish octet, the lowest number from Ireland since the 2001 tour to Australia when six were selected.
The 2021 Lions will play for the first time on June 26 against Japan in Murrayfield, Edinburgh before departing for South Africa, where the schedule has yet to be confirmed given the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Josh Adams (Wales),, Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Chris Harris (Scotland), , Stuart Hogg (Scotland), , Ali Price (Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), Duhan Van Der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales), , Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Tom Curry (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), , Jamie George (England), , Jonny Hill (England), Maro Itoje (England), Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Ken Owens (Wales), , Sam Simmonds (England), Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Hamish Watson (Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, capt).