Sam Warburton has been selected as the captain of the 2017 British and Irish Lions squad.
The Lions will tour New Zealand, playing ten matches, including three Tests, games against all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams, and a match against the New Zealand Maoris.
It is Warburton’s second time as Lions captain, after leading the team to a 2-1 series win over Australia, in 2013. Martin Johnson is the only other player to have captained two Lions’ squads (1997 and 2001).
Warburton is currently recovering from injury but should be fit by the time the tour kicks off on June 3. He actually missed the first two games of the 2013 tour, and the last Test.
Warburton was most pundits’ choice to lead the squad. While he lost the captaincy of Wales this season, he has regained his form and also re-invented himself as a blindside flanker.
English captain Dylan Hartley is one of the shock exclusions from the squad. Hartley has led England to a record equalling 18 consecutive Test wins, including a Grand Slam and two Six Nations’ trophies. He has been let down by a loss of form in recent months, though, and a poor disciplinary record.
The Lions squad announcement has been met with controversy, like most Lions squads, with Scottish fans vocal in bemoaning the fact that they only have two representatives, especially as Scotland beat both Wales and Ireland this season. Jonny Gray, the talented lock, is one player unlucky to miss out.
Warren Gatland has been accused of showing favouritism towards his Welsh players, selecting 12, more than Ireland or Scotland, though Wales finished second from last in this year’s Six Nations, with only wins against Ireland and Italy.
The Lions squad comprises 16 English players, 12 Welsh, 11 Irish and only two Scots. It is the largest Lions squad since the last tour to New Zealand, in 2005.
Many felt that that squad, which was whitewashed 3-0, was too big and left players unable to bond with each other, which is pivotal to a Lions squad, which comprises players from four different nations.
25 players will be making their Lions debut on the tour, with the other 16 having played on the 2013 tour to Australia. Alun Wyn-Jones and Leigh Halfpenny are the only survivors from the 2009 tour to South Africa.
The squad is the usual mix of noted performers and some wildcard picks. Several players were dead certs to feature, including Warburton, North, Hogg, Sexton, Murray, Farrell, Itoje, Wyn-Jones and O’Brien.
Others cemented their places with great performances this year’s, including Watson, Liam Williams, Henshaw, Biggar, Joseph, Stander and O’Mahony.
The wildcard selections include Payne, Daly, Nowell, Marler, Kruis and Moriarty. These players have impressed this season but are still and unknown quantity and will have a chance to show their class on the toughest stage of all.
It is a squad full of ability that will want to emulate the legendary 1971 Lions side, which remains the only Lions team to ever win a series in New Zealand, well, since 1900 anyway.
That ’71 side was stacked with all-time legends: JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, David Duckam, Mike Gibson, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Mervyn Davies, Willie John McBride, Gordon Brown and Ian McLaughlan are still all household names, nearly half a century later.
This year’s Lions have an almost impossible itinerary. Former New Zealand and Lions coach Graham Henry has gone so far as to call it ‘suicidal’. After another congested season, the players will fly to New Zealand to face a New Zealand Barbarians side, which may feature Bryn Gatland, son of Warren, in the team
The Lions will then have matches against the Blues – the weakest of the New Zealand Super Rugby sides – and the Crusaders, who currently top the table with seven wins out of seven
The Highlanders, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, who all have six wins out of seven in Super Rugby, will also face the Lions. As will the New Zealand Maoris, who beat the Lions in 2005.
Then the three Tests against the All Blacks, the current World Cup and Tri-Nations champions, who haven’t lost a home game since 2009, winning 45 matches in a row.
These are the players chosen for this impossible task. As with all Lions tours, there will be injuries, some before the squad even leaves the hemisphere.
There are still ERCC, PRO12, English Premiership and Top14 (in the case of Leigh Halfpenny) matches to be played. The rate of attrition is usually pretty high on a Lions tour. Even the 2005 Lions, who brought 45 players, needed another six replacements before the tour concluded.
It remains to be seen whether this year’s Lions squad can come together and leave international divisions behind. Also, players use to been automatic choices for their own side will have to deal with the disappointment of not getting selected for the Tests. The Lions can be make or break for players.
Bookies have odds of 2-1 for a New Zealand win, 9-2 for the Lions to win, and 10-11 for a New Zealand whitewash. The odds of a Lions whitewash are 25-1. I think that may be too generous!
Lions squad (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
Lions squad (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