Gatland must select the right characters for the one-of-a-kind Lions tour in South Africa British and Irish Lions
P.The British and Irish Lions selection game is like an endless cluedo game with the same repeating outcome. All these guesses, all these permutations and it still boils down to Warren Gatland in the lounge with an impressive selection of lead pipes. With the great men of South Africa, as the old-timers liked to say, it’s generally worth getting your retribution first.
This time, however, the equation is subtly different. It is not enough to just pick the best 36 players and start the team bonding process by inviting them to spread out in a group. Assuming a gritty new African wave of Covid infection doesn’t fail the entire trip, this will be a rugby safari like no other. Spending weeks in hotel conference rooms with little opportunity to explore an extraordinary country? The upcoming season of Lion of Duty will bring some unprecedented challenges.
That means Gatland will need to consider character more than ever before announcing the selection on Thursday. Forget the Kruger National Park; The only “Big Five” this team is likely to encounter are the TV remote control, mini bar, room service menu, free biscuits and, rarely seen these days, the trouser press. He needs players who, when they open the curtains every morning and look at the familiar view from their sandton bubble, are really excited to be there.
Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of willing supplicants even without a sea of fans in red jerseys. Of those on the long list, only Ben Youngs opted out for family reasons, which says a lot about the appeal of a concept some would love to bring to the cracker’s yard. Beware of those who sell such depressing junk. The day rugby leaves the Lions is the moment the entire sport loses an important part of its soul.
For what is a life without the willingness to confuse the received wisdom every now and then and to try the theoretically impossible? Amid all the suspicions that I would do this and that in the pub garden, the extent of Lions’ ambition can sometimes be forgotten. Standing head to toe with the world champions in their own garden, with minimal preparation and players who have hardly met? Sign me up, Warren.
Warren Gatland watches from the stands at Bath’s European Challenge Cup against Montpellier. Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images
In every respect it takes people for whom the impossible is more than just an advertising slogan. Unusually – to reiterate, this is not your average tour – making picking the right captain your first priority. This won’t be a job for the type of leader who just speaks in the field. In this case, with so much potential for distraction outside of the field, he must be part confessor, part indestructible Superman, part wise old owl. Next time Maro Itoje could easily be that man, but right now it’s hard to look past Alun Wyn Jones, the supreme leader of Wales, who is still a relentless force at the age of 35.
Aside from Wales’ six nation title, the other key influence on this squad could be that Leinster failed to cope with La Rochelle’s surge in strength in Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-finals. In one fell swoop, it was questioned how some of Leinster’s candidates would fare against a similarly muscular South African opposition. James Ryan, Ronan Kelleher and Garry Ringrose were now waiting for Thursday’s announcement with more concern than they had been before.
It also brought more focus to Gatland’s strategy for the series. Knowing how South Africa is likely to play, with lots of ball in the air, tough set pieces and an impressive bench – aka The Bomb Squad – he will need solid foundations and players able to defuse danger : Bomb disposal units if you want. Everyone has been talking about the areas Gatland are spoiled for choice, especially the final five of the Scrum, but the 2021 Lions will only be as strong as their weakest links. Do you remember 1997 when Tom Smith and Paul Wallace sagged so deep that they worried the Springboks? This time around, it is in midfield and on the breakdown that the prospects for the Lions series are faked.
Sometimes perfect combinations can come from the air. Within five minutes of Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll playing side by side on the 2009 Lions Tour, it was clear it was a dream ticket. It’s rarely happened, but the pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade always feels like the English equivalent; For this Lions roster, where Robbie Henshaw is apparently a test shoo-in at 12 noon, 1pm, there is a threat of a keynote election. Seasoned Jonathan Davies has long been a staple in Gatland, which is why Tuilagi, Slade, Ringrose and Scotland’s defensively tough Chris Harris are fighting for two places at best.
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It will be similarly tight for the last wing berth: Jack Nowell may have to be content with a standby role while Duhan van der Merwe and Elliot Daly scrape over the last remaining berth on the left. If Tuilagi is not seen as fit enough, Van der Merwe’s ability to gain strength through duels could become even more valuable. Up front too, Lions must be wary of being viewed as pussycats, and Taulupe Faletau will require tough support. However, if Exeter makes it to the Premiership Finals, will there be enough time to incorporate the electric Sam Simmonds into the mix? Or could someone like CJ Stander, such a good team man, be a convenient shortcut?
Decisions, decisions, still possible with the strange surprise. Is Ryan clinging to or could Jonny Gray, Adam Beard, or even Jonny Hill sneak past him? Please tell me that Finn Russell will be traveling even if the management schedule isn’t tailored for him. And where is big Billy V going? Good luck to Gatland and his lieutenants sitting in the socially distant lounge leafing through their brochures with lead pipes.
quick start Guide
The Breakdown’s UK and Irish Lions squads are voting
Full-backs S Hogg (Scotland), L Williams (Wales) Wings J Adams (Wales), L Rees-Zammit (Wales), D Van der Merwe (Scotland), A Watson (England)
Centers J. Davies (Wales), O. Farrell (England), R. Henshaw (Ireland), H. Slade (England), M. Tuilagi (England).
Fly Halves D Biggar (Wales), F Russell (Scotland)
Scrum halves G. Davies (Wales), C. Murray (Ireland), T. Williams (Wales) Hookers L. Cowan-Dickie (England), J. George (England), K. Owens (Wales)
Props T. Furlong (Ireland), C. Healy (Ireland), W. Jones (Wales), A. Porter (Ireland), K. Sinckler (England), M. Vunipola (England)
Schlösser I Henderson (Ireland), M Itoje (England), AW Jones (Wales, Capt), J Gray (Scotland) Flankers T Beirne (Ireland), T Curry (England), J Tipuric (Wales), S Underhill (England) , H Watson (Scotland)
No. 8s T Faletau (Wales), S. Simmonds (England).
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