Student sports writer Ruaraidh Britton is a fan and player, here he reflects on the Lions squad
Just like that, four years have passed and the Lions are heading south to pay the world champions New Zealand a long-awaited visit. Having successfully beaten Australia in the 2013 tour, the Lions will be looking to add to this success in June, following recent southern hemisphere successes from the home nations. Yet it’s not been so straight forward lately, with Warren Gatland making the headlines for what has been arguably the toughest selection process any coach could ever face.
Firstly, you’ve got to take your hat off to Courtney Lawes and George North. Two absolute beasts of the game who have a huge influence on their national sides, doing the Saints proud and getting themselves a seat on that plane to New Zealand. George’s stellar performance in the 2013 tour and his return to form against the Irish in this year’s Six Nations easily secured his position on the right wing. Courtney’s thundering tackles in the Premiership and his dominant displays with the England team winning a second title in as many years also proved just how vital to a series win his second-row status could be.
Yet the one reason Northampton fans will be scratching their heads, has to be the exclusions of England’s captain Dylan Hartley and his fellow teammate Tom Wood. The number eight position was hotly contested, with Faletau and a shock choice in Ross Moriarty of Wales making it a tough place to fight for for Tom. Yet this next absence probably comes as the biggest shock of the announcement so far, and that’s the exclusion of England captain Dylan Hartley. Jamie George has been a much better hooker in recent games for England even though he’s always been a substitute, yet the fact that a captain who has led a team to two consecutive Six Nations titles, and a 3-0 series whitewash against Australia, and a 18 match unbeaten streak, isn’t going to New Zealand, just seems baffling.
Instead it will be Sam Warburton who will lead the tour, even though he relinquished Welsh captaincy to Alun Wyn Jones prior to the Six Nations, and is currently nursing a knee injury. With Chris Robshaw and Steve Borthwick failing to gain captaincy of Lions tours in 2009 and 2013, it’s almost as if accepting England captaincy denies you any possibility of captaining the Lions. Nonetheless, Gatland’s idea of maintaining experienced tour players has come into effect when selecting his captain.
It’s been a split reaction from across the home nations, with a general belief he’s got his selections spot on this time compared to his 2013 team. With returning faces such as the now two time captain Sam Warburton, and key players like Owen Farrell, Connor Murray and Stuart Hogg, you have to believe he has been smart and gone with tour experience, which will most definitely be needed to even stand a chance of beating the All Blacks. Yet there have been several selections which have been heavily criticised in the aftermath of the selection announcement. For example, you have Kyle Sinckler who is yet to start a game for England, the absences of big second-row names like Jonny Gray of Scotland and Donnacha Ryan of Ireland leaving many people such as myself scratching their heads. Why has he let big names go to waste to make way for younger talent that have barely touched the international picture.
One of Gatland’s biggest criticisms so far, has to be the imbalance between the home nations. Out of 41 men, England have 16 players, Ireland have 11, Wales have 12 men, and Scotland have just two heading on the plane to New Zealand in June. The first big mistake has to be the absence of Scottish names on the team sheet for definite, with two-time man of the match winner Finn Russell showing his worth over this years Six Nations. Greig Laidlaw, Scotland’s highly influential scrum-half, left at home for Wales’s Rhys Webb who’s flaring temper against the Scots was something we could do with leaving behind for the tour.
The Gray brothers have a fantastic partnership in the second row, and yet not even Jonny has made the cut despite him hosting one of the best tackle statistics seen in northern hemisphere rugby in years. WP Nel, Hamish Watson, and Josh Strauss, all influential players in the Scot’s forward pack, all left to spend their summer at home. It is the first tour where not one single Scotland forward will be going with the squad, and the lowest amount of Scots to ever tour with the Lions, which has to be considered a big mistake, especially when the forward packs were vital in victories against Ireland and Wales this spring. Instead Gatland has stuck with the guys he knows best and picked 12 Welsh players, much to the displeasure and confusion of many fans considering Wales had their worst Six Nations campaign for years finishing 5th. The lack of Scotland coaches in working with Gatland during selection could be the key factor, with Gregor Townsend who rejected the offer more focused on leading Scotland in their summer fixtures, yet when a team can win three out of five Six Nations matches against two of the home nations, you have to wonder what Gatland’s mental process was during the selection meetings.
Oddly however, there appear to be several players like Sam Warburton who have been selected despite injuries hampering their seasons back in the UK. George Kruis has been given a place after missing the entirety of the Six Nations, the Vunipola brothers returned to face Scotland in March and have earned a call up even though they’ve been sidelined since Christmas, Jonathan Sexton and Dan Biggar fill the fly-half positions despite both having questionable health throughout 2017. As much as Warren wants experience, you need players with consistent fitness if you want them to last all 10 matches on tour, and with Sexton barely managing three Six Nations matches, it begs the question why not bring his replacement Paddy Jackson, who performed exceptionally against Italy in February. Owen Farrell can obviously play at 10, but with how well he has performed at inside centre for England, you have to consider having George Ford fill in to have their partnership really test the Kiwi’s.
Stats don’t do the Lions many favours when travelling to New Zealand. Having lost 10 out of 11 tours, with the last win coming in 1971, it’s hard to see how we can pull it off, especially with talents like Beauden Barrett and Kieran Read running riot over other teams before us. Yet with the losses of big names like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw still evidently hurting, there is a slim chance we can pull off a series win, and Ireland’s victory in Chicago provides the evidence, with many names from that winning side heading south in June. I can see why Steve Hansen might be smiling as he reads our team sheet, yet it won’t be easy for either team, it’s going to be close.