The wait is finally over- Pundit Arena will have to find even more far-fetched ways to make their ‘Potential Lions XV’s’ as Warren Gatland names his squad 41-man squad for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand this summer.
The squad is unsurprisingly dominated by the English and The Irish, with 16 and 11 inclusions apiece. The rest of the squad is comprised of 12 Welshmen and just the two token Scots this time, despite massive improvements from four years ago across the whole Scottish Squad.
I won’t go any further, but Wales finished 2nd bottom (above Italy, hurrah) with Scotland above them, outscoring them over all and beating them in the Championship. It was probably the England game that chalked off several Scots, alongside injuries.
Regardless, it is still a very good squad that should be able to compete, so instead of dwelling on the numbers, let’s look forward to some (hopefully) exciting rugby.
The big one initially was Jared Payne. The full-back cum centre has been injured and often seen as a dull player. However, the adopted Irishman is solid in defence and can bring flair to a game- his versatility will certainly have helped him onto the plane.
The next is another centre- Ben Te’o. The ex-Leinster man hasn’t broken into the English centre’s as any more than a sub, but has clearly impressed Gatland and his team. The bruising centre is a hard runner (which we know Gats likes) but his league background also makes him an elusive runner with a good offload. If he gets back to the form he had at Leinster, then he could be a solid inclusion.
The final ‘surprise’ for me was Courtney Lawes. He was solid for England this year, but his performances were absolutely dwarfed by Joe Launchbury, a surprise omission from the squad. He’ll put the fear into the New Zealand half-backs (assuming it isn’t a late hit…) but I’m not sure whether we’ll see him in a test match.
Biggar. Desperately lacking form for Ospreys, but tried and tested and can be a very good player when at his best. Just don’t feel like he’s there right now. Hopefully he can prove me wrong.
Love him or hate him Dylan Hartley has generally kept his cool and lead England on a magnificent unbeaten run. That said, his understudy for England, Jamie George, has been included as a result of his form for Saracens. With Hartley being a New Zealander himself, there’s more than rugby that made this decision.
As already mentioned- Joe Launchbury. A turnover king and general nuisance at the breakdown, paired with his excellent set piece ability and broken field play, I’m really perplexed by this one. Surely the first man Gatland will call if there’s an injury in the boiler room.
Unlucky to miss out
First of all the Scottish front row of last year- WP Nel and Alasdair Dickinson would surely have been pushing for a spot had they been fit, as with Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones.
That said, with such depth in the centre’s, they would have had a serious job to do.
Chris Robshaw can also feel disappointed as he excellently overcame his World Cup disappointment to be one of the best 6’s in the northern hemisphere, before injury stumped his form.
Another for me has to be Simon Zebo. A Lions tourist of 2013, Zebo has been back to his best for Munster this season. His versatility across the back three can really bring some sparkle and must surely be in Gatland’s mind as a potential call up player.
The final one is the most gutting for me and that is Hamish Watson. The man carries Edinburgh rugby, caused havoc at every opportunity in the Six Nations and statistically outplayed the likes of Tipuric. If there are any injuries to an open-side, they’d be mad not to have Watson in my opinion.
Here’s the full squad and below, my starting 15 (I’m no coach, but it’s fun…)
Props- Dan Cole, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Tadhg Furlong, Joe Marler
Hookers- Rory Best, Jamie George, Ken Owens
Second Rows- Iain Henderson, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn-Jones
Flankers- Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (Captain)
Number 8- Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Billy Vunipola
Scrum-Halves- Conor Murray, Ben Youngs, Rhys Webb
Fly-Halves- Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar
Centre’s- Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Ben Te’o, Jonathon Joseph, Jared Payne, Jonathon Davies
Back-three- Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams, Tommy Seymour
My Starters- Because Gatland will probably need some help from a fan on the Internet.
1-Jack McGrath. Has beaten the all Blacks, solid for Leinster and Ireland, exactly what’s needed.
2- Jamie George. An exciting player held back by Hartley for England. Has been excellent for Sarries and deserves a shot.
3- Tadhg Furlong- Pretty similar justification as for McGrath.
4- Maro Itoje. Not at his best for England when playing 6, but excellent in the loose and set-piece.
5- Alun Wyn-Jones. When Ospreys play without him, you know about it. A solid operator.
6- CJ Stander- Swats defenders like flys, marshals the team. Perfect to get front foot ball against the All Blacks.
7- Sam Warburton, Love Warbs, even if I prefer him as a 6 usually. You just can’t ignore CJ. Sam has been on great form of late and his experience will bring an awful lot to this Lions team.
8- Billy Vunipola. Moriarty actually pushed him close here, but how can you ignore the big man?
9- Conor Murray. Assuming he comes back well from injury, no one is as good in the NH right now.
10- Johnny Sexton. Farrell pushes oh so close, and will no doubt be needed, but Sexton’s loops are unplayable at his best. With his wealth of experience, he just gets the 10 shirt for me.
11- Tommy Seymour. May come as a surprise for some, but has a high strike rate, reads the game and intercepts well and I can’t think of a better winger under the high ball in the Northern Hemisphere.
12- Robbie Henshaw. Scored the winner against the All Blacks in Chicago, has been key for Ireland and Leinster this season and brings a physical presence to the midfield.
13- Jonathan Joseph. He does things to rugby teams that shouldn’t be shown before the watershed.
14- George North. Stepped up to the plate last time, has rediscovered form of late and will be a real handful for the All Blacks.
15- Stuart Hogg. No point trying to justify this one. At this stage, we’ve all decided whether we’re Hogg or not.
Liam Williams benched due to versatility and the impact he can have in broken field at the end of a game.
Elliot Daly- I don’t know where I would play him. Very good at wing and centre. Unlucky to miss out here.
As with all of these things, it’s just a bit of a laugh- I’m sure Gatland and their team know more than I do, as I’m sure do you, some of the readers who will tell me how ridiculously wrong I am. The joy of doing mock-up teams and talking about the Lions eh?!
Let me know your thoughts on Twitter or by email.
The Scribbler, 19th April 2017