Well, the wait is finally over! After 4 long years, the best players in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, have been selected to come together as one entity: The British and Irish Lions.
37-man Lions squad to tour Australia:
Backs: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Rob Kearney (Ireland); Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland), George North (Wales); Jonathan Davies (Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England); Owen Farrell (England), Jonny Sexton (Ireland); Conor Murray (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)
Forwards: Dan Cole (England), Cian Healey (Ireland), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Adam Jones, (Wales), Matt Stevens (England), Mako Vunipola (England); Dylan Hartley (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Tom Youngs (England); Ian Evans (Wales), Richie Gray (Scotland), Alun Wyn-Jones (Wales), Paul O’Connell (Ireland), Geoff Parling (England); Tom Croft (England), Toby Faletau (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales)
The squad will be captained by Wales’s Sam Warburton, and contains 15 Welsh players, 10 English, 9 Irish and 3 Scots. A pretty fair division considering Wales winning back-to-back 6 Nations titles, and Ireland’s poor form in the tournament.
There aren’t that many shock selections/omissions, with most of the squad having been pencilled in since last year, even. England’s captain, Chris Robshaw is probably the most high profile player to miss out on selection.
A positional shock is the fact that only 2 out-halves have been selected. This means that both Sexton and Farrell will be playing in all 10 games, either starting the game or as a replacement, which is ridicolous!
The 2009 Lions (of which Gatland was an assistant coach) only brought 2 out-haves at the start, but later selected James Hook. They’ll certainly need to call on a replacement if Sexton and Farrell are playing every game!
There are a lot of new players, with 24 of the squad making their first tour. Of the others, 12 toured with the Lions 4 years ago, and Matt Stevens toured New Zealand in 2005. Jones, Jenkins and O’Connell are on their 3rd tour, while BO’D is on his 4th.
As Ireland came 2nd in the 6 Nations (almost joint last) we can’t really quibble about having 9 players selected to tour, though Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donncha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Ian Madigan and Simon Zebo were unlucky to miss out.
It’s great to see Bowe, Sexton and O’Connell selected, after returning from injury, Heaslip as well. He hasn’t being great in the last few years, but has improved recently, especially his man-of-the-match performance against Biarritz in the Amlin semi-final.
Kearney is returning to top form, though he is currently 2nd choice full back. Healy and O’Brien are test place candidates, as is O’Driscoll. BO’D was also touted as a possible captain, along with O’Connell.
I was surprised by some of the English players selected, though they did do well in the 6 Nations, and came 2nd in both this, and last year’s, tournaments. I thought they were better as a team, though, than as individuals.
Matt Stevens is an interesting choice as he retired from the England squad back in 2011. He had toured with the ’05 Lions but then failed a drug test and was out of the game for a few years. Great to see him work his way back,
Tuilagi is a very powerful runner, but a bit one-dimensional. Owen Farrell is a very good player, but seems to struggle in the big games. Tom Croft has been playing well but I would have picked Chris Robshaw ahead of him.
Mike Vunipola is a new name, but has played well for England this season. Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley have been trading the England starting jersey at hooker. Youngs is the better player and I might have picked Best ahead of Hartley.
There was a chance that Jonny Wilkinson might be selected, considering his current form and reputation. Maybe even ahead of Farrell. Wilkinson had toured with the Lions in 2001 to Australia, but apparently he himself ruled himself out of the tour.
Tom and Ben Youngs are the first brothers to be picked for the Lions on the same tour, since the Underwood’s of England, in 1993. That tour was captained by Gavin Hastings, who was selected with his brother Scott. They both toured in 1989.
Sean Maitland is a surprise pick. All the talk pre-tour was of Tim Visser travelling. I would have picked Simon Zebo ahead of Maitland. Richie Gray has been playing well this season but a lot of people would have picked Geoff Parling ahead of him.
Stuart Hogg has been a real star for Scotland this year. Greig Laidlaw, Euan Murray and Ross Ford might have been possible choices. Laidlaw especially, being able to play at scrum-half and out-half.
Not since Wales dominated rugby in the 1970’s, have they had such a big contingent of players, with 15. Almost the entire team that won the 6 Nations, with only out-half Dan Biggar feeling aggrieved at been left out.
Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Roberts, Davies, North and Phillips could easily be part of the Lions test back-line, with only Ireland’s Sexton at out-half, stopping it from being a full Welsh back-line. Brian O’Driscoll could also replace Davies at centre.
Not since 1971, when only Mike Gibson was the only non-Welsh player in the back-line for the Lions, has one country dominated a team like that. England’s David Duckam played in the last 3 tests for the Lions that year, making it 2 non-Welsh.
(The 1971 tour was also captained by a Welshman. John Dawes led the side to a 2-1 and a draw series victory over New Zealand, the only time the Lions have beaten the All Blacks. Incidentally, that tour started in Australia where they lost their first game.
Phil Bennett is the only other Welshman to have captained the Lions, in 1977. They lost to New Zealand, 3-1. They weren’t helped by miserable weather and a zealous press that attacked them at every opportunity. Dawes actually coached the ’77 side.)
Wales could also conceivably have a whole pack in the tests, with only Paul O’Connell, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien providing real opposition. Gethin Jenkins hasn’t been able to get a start for Toulon but has been playing well for Wales.
Sam Warburton has been chosen to captain the Lions, and at 24 he’s the youngest man to do so. Ireland’s Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll were also in the running, but Warburton got the nod due to Wales’s performance in the last 2 Six Nations.
Wales won the Grand Slam in 2012, and the Six Nations title in 2013, their only loss in 10 games, to Ireland at the start of this year’s tournament, though Warburton wasn’t the captain in all of those 10 games.
Wales have a bad record outside the 2 tournaments, having lost 7 games, including 4 against Australia! Warburton is young, inexperienced, injury prone and inconsistent. He may struggle to get a place in the test side, even. He can be great on his day, though.
Neither Martin Johnson, nor Finaly Calder had captained their countries before they captained the Lions. Calder’s Lions won in Australia in 1989 (2-1), and Johnson’s Lions won in South Africa in 1997 (also 2-1).
As it stands, it’s a very good squad, which, in most cases, has been selected on current form. Unfortunately, given the attritional nature of victory, not all 37 players will be remaining at the end. Which means that some players not originally selected will feature. Of course, the domestic isn’t even over yet.
There are many tournaments still to be decided, and all the players will be looked on to play for their respective teams. 4 of the 2009 lions squad were injured before that tour began and the average number of injuries on a Lions tour is 8.
For example, Leinster could conceivably be playing in 4 games in May (3 Rabo, if they get to the final, and 1 Amlin final) and they will need their top players for those games, including the 6 players chosen for the Lions tour. And that’s just Leinster.
The Heineken and Amlin finals are on the weekend of the 17th/18th May, the Rabo final is on the 27th. That’s less than a week before the Lions tour starts. Quite a change from the old, when the players will have at least a weeks break.
The Lions tour starts in Hong Kong on June 1st, where they play the Barbarians. Then they travel to Australia, where they have their first game on 5th June. They then play a further 8 games, including 3 tests, up to 6th July. That’s 10 games in 36 days!
CAN THEY WIN:
That’s the question asked of every tour, and in most cases the Lions haven’t won. Only 4 times (1971, ’74, ’89 and ’97) have the Lions won a test series in their history. That’s in over 125 years of touring!
They face the same problems as other tours have had: trying to bring together players of different nationalities to work as one team; getting players to gel over a very short period of time; trying to keep the players not picked from getting depressed; keeping the players fit.
On paper the Lions probably have a better side than Australia, but the factors to consider are that the Lions are a scratch side full of players who’ve had a long season, whereas the Wallabies (Australia) will be fresh and won’t want to lose in their own back yard!
I think it will be a pretty close series, like the last 2 against Australia (1989 and 2001) have been, they both went down to the last minute of the final game. I think the Lions will win the series, 2-1. After 3 straight losses, including a whitewash, they have to!
Congrats to all the players selected and let’s hope they do jersey proud!