The big cats are out of the bag with the naming of Warren Gatland’s 41-man Lions squad to face the toughest assignment in world rugby, a fully fledged tour of All Black country.
There was confirmation of rumoured notable omissions, a couple of bolters and a Scottish snub in the unveiling of the enormous playing group.
It will be captained by former Wales skipper Sam Warburton, who joins Martin Johnson as only the second player to lead a Lions tour twice.
At the head of the notable omissions category is hooker Dylan Hartley who becomes the third successive England captain to miss out on a Lions tour, following in the footsteps of Chris Robshaw and Steve Borthwick. This despite leading his team to back-to-back Six Nations triumphs and a world record-equalling 18 Test wins on the trot.
Hartley dipped out to his England understudy Jamie George, Ireland captain Rory Best and Wales’ Ken Owens. It will be a bitter pill for the Rotorua Boys High product to miss out on a once in a lifetime odyssey to his homeland, despite his non-selection being widely mooted before the announcement.
Although Gatland was at pains to discount Hartley’s poor disciplinary record – which directly cost him a place in the last Lions tour of Australia in 2013 when he was banned following a red card for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes in a club game for Northampton – it was almost certainly a factor, but not as large a one as form.
It has proven a masterstroke by Eddie Jones to make Hartley his captain when he assumed the England reins after their disastrous 2015 World Cup. After the odd violent indiscretion, it eventually forced a channelling of the firebrand’s wayward aggression.
But as the 2017 Six Nations wore on it became obvious that rather than being contained, the volatility that made Hartley such a combative customer had largely been drained from his game completely. It appeared the mellowing trick worked too well, he’d lost his edge and was finding himself replaced earlier and earlier in games by the robustly impressive George.
England lock Joe Launchbury can also count himself as unlucky, coming off a barnstorming Six Nations that included two man-of-the-match performances. His teammates George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and sometimes blindside Maro Itoje have been preferred in the engine room, alongside Warburton’s successor as Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones and Ireland’s Iain Henderson.
Gatland has made no bones about wanting a pack that more than fronts up to the Kiwis in the physical stakes, so Launchbury’s omission may be more a case of the coach wanting more fight in the dog than dog in the fight.
England pivot George Ford is another who will have to get his southern hemisphere kicks out of a tour to Argentina this northern summer having missed out to countryman Owen Farrell, Welshman Dan Biggar and Irish maestro Jonathan Sexton at No. 10. Ford’s relative defensive frailties no doubt costing him the gig.
Scotland can feel rightfully aggrieved to have just the two tourists in winger Tommy Seymour and fullback Stuart Hogg, compared to the 16 English, 12 Welsh and 11 players from Ireland in the squad.
In fact, the Kiwis have a higher representation in the contingent than the Scots if you included Gatland along with bolters Ben Te’o (England) and Jared Payne (Ireland).
It does seem harsh when you consider Scotland beat both Wales and Ireland in a largely impressive 2017 Six Nations campaign, notwithstanding their capitulation to England.
Jonny and Richie Gray, and fly-half Finn Russell, will no doubt be miffed, but it’s hard to argue the players preferred to them don’t deserve the nod.
And you would expect that had he been fit, tighthead WP Nel would surely have been included.
Still, it will be the first time in 109 years of Lions rugby that no player from north of Hadrian’s Wall will grace the forward pack. Scotland’s perceived snub could well add another strand to the movement for secession from the UK union that has once again flared since Theresa May’s surprise snap call for the “Brexit election” this week.
Watching Sky Sport’s live streaming of the announcement last night, one thing that stood out was Gatland’s rather muted endorsement of his captain.
Once the worst kept secret in rugby had been confirmed, Gatland was asked to comment on his choice of Warburton as skipper.
After mentioning how important his experience in captaining the team in 2013 was he went straight into: “He’s fully aware that his form needs to be good enough to be selected in the Test team, so there’s going to be some pressure on him for that.”
In the context a surprisingly frank admission that the currently injured Welsh openside will need to fight for his place in an intensely competitive loose forward contingent that includes the likes of countryman Justin Tipuric and Ireland dynamos Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander.
Gatland went on in a more tuneful tone to sing Warburton’s praises.
“I think he’s the right man for the job….he did a great job in 2015. For us it was a natural choice.”
After the opening gambit, though, it all seemed less than a ringing endorsement.
It brought to mind a column former Lions New Zealand tourist and now respected rugby pundit Stuart Barnes wrote for the Times. Titled ‘Lions stand no chance of upset if Warburton is given captaincy’, the piece argued that the Welsh flanker is a defensive machine but isn’t creative enough to cause the All Blacks too much trouble.
The former England fly-half asserted that the only way to beat the All Blacks is to starve them of possession and keep hold of the ball, however Warburton does the majority of his best work without the ball.
“The Lions will not beat a team as good as New Zealand by making a thousand tackles. The higher the tackling stats, the greater the margin of defeat.”
Barnes argued Tipuric is the best openside in Wales and pointed to Warburton missing the third Test against Australia in 2013 – due to a hamstring injury – was what put the Lions in a better position to achieve a resounding series-winning victory over the Wallabies.
O’Brien, his replacement for the final Test in Sydney four years ago, represented a move from “defensive heroism to match-winning attack,” according to Barnes.
“He (Warburton) will defend until the last man drops in New Zealand. But more will be needed against the best team in the world. And Warburton doesn’t possess that extra ingredient.”
Which, in a nutshell, sums up the broader prospects of this Lions team on their epic Kiwi adventure.
Their brutish forward pack will be hugely combative up front with a set piece that will test every facet of All Black first-phase capability. They will be suitably Lion-hearted over the ball at the breakdown and the backs will charge into the All Blacks both offensively and defensively from whistle to whistle.
The sharpest shooters in world rugby will kick virtually every point on offer. But they will lack that all-important x-factor that will ultimately prove the difference. The players with x-factor selected, such as Te’o and Hogg, are as yet unproven in that part of the world.
On the other hand, the All Blacks will have x-factor all over the park. My fearless prediction is for a three-zip Blackwash in the Tests and for the Lions to also get tipped up by the Hurricanes and Crusaders.
What say you, Roarers?
British and Irish Lions squad for New Zealand Tour
Forwards: Rory Best, Dan Cole, Taulupe Faletau, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler, Jack McGrath, Ross Moriarty, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton.
Backs: Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Leigh Halfpenny, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg, Jonathan Joseph, Conor Murray, George North, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Seymour, Ben Te’o, Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Ben Youngs.