The announcement of Warren Gatland’s Lions squad was met with a shrug of the shoulders and a gentle nod of the head throughout the rugby world. There are few bones of contention to be had with the New Zealander’s squad and any initial disgruntlements were soon batted away by sound reasoning and logic from the coaching staff.
An initial glance through the squad-list might cause one to throw their arms up at the omission of Jonny Wilkinson from the touring party, until you read that the iconic no.10 ruled himself out of contention because of his commitments with Toulon. But only two fly-halves? Surely a risk? Rob Howley’s argument that taking three would undermine the preparation of the two that they have taken makes sense. In a position which requires the greatest level of understanding with those around you, taking just Sexton and Farrell means that they will be able to maximize their game time in the warm-up matches. Cover can always be called upon if need be.
There are notable areas of dispute dotted around the selection, but you feel that Gatland has not been pushed into making any decision that will decide the outcome of the series just yet. The big name exclusion of England captain Chris Robshaw may appear as one to some, but with Warburton named as captain and thus virtually guaranteed his starting place in the Test side, it seems unlikely that Robshaw would have played much part in the Tests whether selected or not. The two would not complement each other as a back row combination and Robshaw is a workhorse and, whilst not to be undervalued, is not exactly the type of impact player you would be looking to bring off the bench.
The only other area to raise a substantial number of eyebrows was the front-row selection, but although Matt Steven’s inclusion is puzzling and Rory Best’s exclusion even more so, Gatland has got one pick spot on. The selection of Mako Vunipola, England’s answer to Jonah Lomu. It is unlikely that he will get a starting berth, but his Sonny-Bill hands add dynamism off the bench.
But essentially the Lions squad is fairly predictable and in reality this is because there was not in fact that much competition for places. This is not to say that the squad is not a strong one, merely that certain players had made such strong cases for selection that it was difficult to look any other way. There is no wildcard pick in the mould of a Theo Walcott, or even to the extent that Keith Earls was when he was relatively unknown four years ago. Gatland will say that he had to make some tough decisions, but on the whole around 33 of the 37-man squad rather picked themselves.
Whilst making the initial selection process rather easier than normal, the ease with which many players have found themselves in the squad will make Gatland’s choice for his starting VX against Australia on the 22nd of June all the more challenging and far more important than whom he has decided to take down under.
One can’t help but think that Gatland’s selection of who is to partner Warburton in the back row may well decide the outcome of the series, rather than the fact Stevens is on the plane and not Euan Murray.
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