It didn’t take long for the knives to come out. Just a few minutes after Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand was named, the Kiwi coach was asked what his message was to the team’s fans.
The debate around selection had been healthy, Gatland said, but now was the time to unify behind the team. With the Lions picked from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland that is much easier said than done. The squad of 41 includes 16 England players, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and just two from Scotland, who had produced some superb rugby in the Six Nations. Many on Twitter noted Scotland thumped Wales 29-13 in the Six Nations in February.
“4 Wales back rowers. Double the number of entire Scots representation. Memory jog: Scotland beat Wales in 6Nations,” tweeted Owen Slot, chief rugby correspondent at The Times. New Zealand-domiciled but staunchly proud Englishman Ant Salmon, whose brother Jamie was an All Black who later played for England, was just as grumpy at the Welsh representation, declaring on Twitter there were “far too many Welsh. Scotland under represented”.
Irish writer Brendan Gallagher took a more political bent, tweeting “Looks like Scotland already being chucked out of the union! Beat Ireland and Wales handily but just 2 Lions, Ireland and Wales 23”. One wag noted that one of the Scots was actually American!
Gatland acknowledged people would be disappointed only two Scots were picked but said he’d focused on form and how the player would fit into the squad. “You can’t pick a squad to play the All Blacks based on nationality.”
England’s New Zealand born skipper Dylan Hartley wasn’t picked, but Gatland said that had nothing to do with a poor discipline record that’s seen him serve lengthy bans. It was more that Hartley’s Six Nations understudy, Jamie George, and Wales Ken Owens and Ireland’s Rory Best were playing better.
There was room though for two New Zealanders, former Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues centre Jared Payne, 31, one of the 11 Irish players picked, while former NRL star Ben Te’o was named despite being largely a reserve for England in the Six Nations.
Gatland liked Te’o’s impact off the bench for England at centre, though he’d he be used at second five for the Lions and shapes as a counter to Sonny Bill Williams. “He can be direct but has more skill than that with his ability to off load. We have to match the All Blacks’ impact off the bench.”
Sam Warburton is the tour skipper, just the second player (after Martin Johnson) to lead the Lions away twice. He’s been out with a knee injury but insisted he would be fit to play from the opening game against a Provincial Barbarians team in Whangarei on June 3. His selection ramps up the pressure in the loose forwards though Gatland said Warburton still had to earn his test spot. Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and Wales’ Justin Tipuric will tussle at seven. With Warburton given a head start at six, Ireland’s CJ Stander may have to settle for a spot on the bench if he can’t convince Gatland to picked him at No8 ahead of England’s Billy Vunipola and the Welsh duo of Tob Faletau and Ross Moriarty.
The All Blacks will fancy their chances in the loose and the set pieces, especially with England lock Joe Launchbury overlooked and only eight of the 22 forwards having toured with the Lions before. Forward coach Graham Rowntree, who has tasted success as a Lions player and coach, said they’d looked for tough competitors. “We wanted men with tough characters, to be tough competitors, guys who can bring their best game under extreme pressure.”
Eight of the 19 backs have played for the Lions before and most will be familiar to the All Blacks – familiar and far from formidable. Te’o and Wales wing George North can break the line, while Liam Williams and Elliot Daly had good Six Nations for Wales and England respectively. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg fully deserves his spot and is the strong contender to start the tests, and Jonathan Joseph had an excellent game in the midfield for England against Scotland – but that was his one highlight from the Six Nations.
This is not a Lions team that will strike fear into All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s heart – though he will spend weeks telling us just how good they are. It will be a relentless tour – former All Blacks and Lions coach Sir Graham Henry called it suicidal – with games against all five Super Rugby franchises, New Zealand Maori and three tests. Gatland acknowledged that when he said past tours had enjoyed easier mid-week games and that self-belief would be crucial in New Zealand.
He also said the Lions had to be winners off the field – after the disastrous 2005 tour – and that they would be doing a wide range of community visits. He’s got copies of a variety of New Zealand films such as The Hunt for the Wilder People, Whale Rider and Boy for the squad to watch, hoping they better understand the Kiwi sense of humour.
And choir practice is on the agenda so the Lions will be in full voice at what is sure to be a large number of powhiri.
Gatland is hoping that an in-tune team off the field will be on-song on game day.
The 2017 British and Irish Lions team to tour New Zealand
Fullbacks-wings: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Lee Halfpenny, Liam Williams, George North (Wales), Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell (England), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Jared Payne (Ireland).
Midfielders: Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o (England).
First five-eighths: Dan Biggar (Wales), Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England).
Halfbacks: Conor Murray (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Youngs (England).
Loose forwards: Billy Vunipola (England), Sean O’Brien, C J Stander, Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (c), Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric (Wales).
Locks: Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales).
Props: Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler (England), Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong (Ireland),
Hookers: Rory Best (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Jamie George (England).