Warren Gatland has offered no guarantees that Ireland’s former Lions captains Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll will make his starting 15 for the opening Test against Australia on June 22.
There were nine Irish players named yesterday in Gatland’s 37-man squad charged with becoming the first Lions to win a Test series since the 1997 victory over South Africa, O’Connell and O’Driscoll two of five with previous Lions experience alongside Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe while Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien will be touring for the first time when the squad leaves these islands on May 27, bound for Hong Kong and an opening game against the Barbarians on June 1.
Gatland had watched Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier last Saturday and was impressed by O’Connell’s contribution, but when considering the captaincy he implied that his chosen skipper Sam Warburton was the only player among the leadership candidates virtually certain of a Test start in Brisbane on June 22.
“I thought the way [O’Connell] played against Harlequins was great,” Gatland said. “Then he played the following week and by all accounts he was struggling last week with a groin injury.
“I think you’ve got to admire Munster for their tenacity in terms of sticking in that game. It could have been 20 or 30 points; they got battered, basically, up front and the scoreline, I think, flattered Munster.
“There was always the potential of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell being considered for selection [as Lions captain], but when it came down to it, if I was being honest and we were picking a team tomorrow and a Test side tomorrow, I think Sam Warburton would be one of the names in that Test side, whether it was at No 6 or whether it was at No 7.
“For a number of other players, they have got to fight for their position.”
That will suit all of Ireland’s contingent, five from Leinster, two from Munster and Bowe the lone Ulsterman. Only fly-half Sexton of the nine seems a certain starter for the first Test, although Gatland also said he had no pre-conceived idea of his first 15.
“Where we are at the moment, we would all have an idea in our heads, I’ve got an idea in my head of what potentially the Test side would look like at the moment, but in a couple of months’ time, when the first Test comes around, it will be different.”
Amid the celebrations at being selected, of course, there was also disappointment at being omitted, though there is still hope of being called up late to the party as some of the chosen ones fall foul of injury.
The Lions coaches suggested Simon Zebo and Rory Best were the unluckiest Irishmen to lose out with Gatland saying Munster wing Zebo was definitely one of “two or three” in that position to lose out, Scotland’s Kiwi-born wing Sean Maitland one of the surprise inclusions.
“It was a tough call. [Zebo] was definitely unlucky to be one of the ones who missed out.”.
Gatland said Ulster hooker Best was also “incredibly unlucky” as he selected Wales’s Richard Hibbard and Englishmen Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley, with forwards coach Graham Rowntree suggesting the numbers did not add up for the Irishman in a head to head with Hartley.
“I think we all have quite a subjective view on a player, but you get into big selection decisions like this and you’ve got to go to the stats,” Rowntree said. “Sometimes they don’t back up what you see, but they do with Dylan.
“I’m just happy with the all-round package of all the hookers. They’ve got to be good set-piece technicians, good carriers, good defenders, because Australia have got threats everywhere so we need guys who are agile and very good in that department. Dylan edged it there.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved