Yesterday saw the squad announcement for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand which kicks off against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on 3 June this year.
The Lions have only had a single successful tour in the land of the long white cloud when John Dawes led them to a 2-1 series victory against the mighty All Blacks in 1971. In those days the Lions played 26 matches (including two in Australia) over a 3 month period. In today’s professional game, player commitments and International windows mean the Lions must squeeze 10 games against first class opposition, including 3 Test matches against the All Blacks, all in the space of 5 weeks.
Following another successful Six Nations Championship, competition for touring places was always likely to be strong as has proved to be the case. Many an armchair pundit has questioned some of the decisions made by the Lions’ ex-All Black head coach Warren Gatland, including in particular the notable omissions of England Captain Dylan Hartley, who led his team to a 3-0 whitewash of the Wallabies last summer (something Gatland was unable to do with his Lions team four years ago), and Six Nations Player of the Tournament nominee Joe Launchbury.
The Scots in particular may feel hard done by with only 2 players selected for the playing party of 41, their lowest ever representation, despite finishing equal second on points in the Six Nations after home wins against Ireland and Wales (who each have 11 and 12 players respectively) and currently being ranked the World’s 5th best team.
As one prone to see things through tartan tinted spectacles, good cases could have been made for a genuine openside in the mould of Hamish Watson, the engine and work rate of Jonny Gray or the mercurial attacking nature of Finn Russell. However when one looks at those who will be on the plane it is difficult to argue too strongly against with those Gatland has selected. Things may be different in 4 years time when the current team has matured that much further and when Watson will still be only 29, Gray 27 (the same age Martin Johnson first captained the Lions) and Russell 28; indeed Stuart Hogg may be embarking on a third Lions tour at the age of 28.
If the SRU was to feel disgruntled at the selections made it may also wish to shoulder some of the blame. By failing to persuade either Gregor Townsend or Jason O’Halloran to take up Gatland’s offer as one of his assistant coaches it lost the opportunity of having anyone advocating the attributes of Scottish players at the table during the selection process. One may have some sympathy for Townsend, newly appointed as Scotland head coach, but it is difficult to understand O’Halloran’s decision given the experience he will miss out on and only as a result of a desire to oversee pre-season at his new club Glasgow.
Some commentators have criticised Gatland for picking a squad which will be limited to playing “Warrenball“, the physical game which Wales has been accustomed to, but the inclusion of genuine play makers such as Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly would suggest he is prepared to consider other approaches.
What cannot be in dispute is that the Lions will face a punishing schedule, playing each of the New Zealand Super Rugby franchise teams, the New Zealand Maoris and the All Blacks within 5 weeks. With the exception of the All Blacks all of these teams will have nothing to lose with players, including possibly Gatland’s own son, looking to make a claim for a potential All Blacks spot.
As for the concept of the Lions in general, some have questioned whether there remains a place for such a team in the professional era and when a number of those selected are not originally from the Home Nations whom the Lions are said to represent – indeed it may be argued that there are more “Project Players” selected than Scotsmen.
In fact this may explain a lot of Gatland’s reasoning. He has chosen a professional squad in a professional era. If you want to beat the All Blacks on their home turf there is no room for sentiment or making sure each nation is represented equally. You can’t have it both ways. The best players in each position get a seat on the plane.
Judging by the disappointment of fans in respect of those players who missed out (and no doubt the players themselves) and the excitement in respect of the forthcoming tour it would appear there still remains an appetite for the Lions.