Warren Gatland is about to embark on his third British & Irish Lions tour as head coach but, to his credit, he remains firmly his own man. It takes a selector with an unusually strong constitution to omit players of the class of Johnny Sexton, Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi, Kyle Sinckler, Jonathan Davies, Henry Slade and James Ryan but Gatland has not even blinked, convinced the 37-man cast unveiled at London’s Mermaid Theatre represent the best hope of commanding the stage in South Africa this summer.
As the naysayers should appreciate by now, there is invariably method to Gatland’s supposed madness. Having confirmed Alun Wyn Jones as his captain there were a further 10 pivotal calls to be made and shrewd, proactive solutions have been found in almost every case.
Gatland knows exactly what tools are required to beat the Springboks; if a few egos have to be selectorially bruised en route then so be it. Which is why, listening to him expand on the rationale behind his choices at fly-half, centre and the back row, in particular, it was possible to feel the tell-tale fizz of anticipation that smart selection can generate. South Africa are the reigning world champions with plenty of artillery at their disposal but, even so, they will study this combination and instantly detect opponents who are unlikely to take a backward step.
For a start this latest pride of Lions is genuinely representative of all four home unions in an era when the Six Nations championship is becoming ever more closely contested. With 11 English, 10 Welsh and eight apiece from Scotland and Ireland, there is an instant shared identity that should benefit the collective. Go looking for out-of-form or injured has‑beens picked on reputation and, instead, you will mostly find highly motivated individuals with points to prove.
British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa
Josh Adams (Wales), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Chris Harris (Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ali Price (Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), Duhan Van Der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales), Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Jack Conan (Ireland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Tom Curry (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Jonny Hill (England), Maro Itoje (England), Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Ken Owens (Wales), Andrew Porter (Ireland), Sam Simmonds (England), Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Hamish Watson (Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, capt).
Take, for example, the omission of Sexton, such a linchpin on the Lions’ past two tours. In other circumstances, Gatland would have relished his experience and competitive edge. This time, though, it has been decided that a relentlessly physical tour of South Africa is no country for (relatively) old men. While making it crystal clear that the Ireland fly-half’s concussion history had no direct bearing on his omission, the perceived extra durability of Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell and Finn Russell will mean the 35-year-old Sexton spends this summer at home.
Where Russell is concerned, Gatland has also been shrewd enough to realise the value of some variety in such an important position. Showing faith in the former’s playmaking ability, he senses, could just pay dividends in terms of wrong-footing highly organised opponents. “I just want to send a message, particularly to Finn, that we back him and have confidence in him to put pressure on the other 10s and put his hand up for the Test side,” stressed Gatland, who has also included Russell’s good mate Ali Price in the biggest Scottish contingent to make a Lions tour for 32 years.
Those with half-decent memories will also detect slightly ironic echoes of 2013 when the great Brian O’Driscoll was omitted from the decisive final Test in favour of the younger Jonathan Davies. This time the boot is on the other foot, with the Welshman dumped in favour of the younger, defensively eager Chris Harris, chosen specifically to counter the speed and strength of the Springboks’ midfield carriers.
Having also preferred Bundee Aki over Manu Tuilagi – it was deemed too risky to expect the latter to be instantly restored to full throttle at altitude having not played since September – it created a gap for a versatile footballer capable of slotting in anywhere across the backline. Which is how Elliot Daly has leapfrogged both the desperately unlucky Henry Slade and Ireland’s Garry Ringrose despite a modest Six Nations campaign.
Given Daly was a Test regular in New Zealand four years ago, however, he clearly still has some credit in the bank from Gatland’s perspective. So have almost all of Saracens’ big-name contingent, the exception being Billy Vunipola who has simply not done enough in the past year to justify Lions recognition. Again, though, it was fascinating to hear Gatland’s rationale that South Africa would prefer playing against the straight-running England No 8 than, say, someone such as Sam Simmonds who has appreciably more pace and footwork. Eddie Jones does not agree but Gatland’s logic is sound enough.
Gatland also made clear that, had this tour party been heading to Australia or New Zealand, his final list might have looked very different. Against the Boks, however, a competitive set piece is absolutely non-negotiable. Kyle Sinckler will be gutted but the management have identified that Scotland’s front row conceded fewer scrum penalties in the Six Nations. The biggest challenge of their careers, accordingly, now awaits Zander Fagerson and the currently injured Rory Sutherland.
As suspected, Leinster’s mugging by La Rochelle has also cost James Ryan a second-row berth and allowed Exeter’s soaring Jonny Hill to hurdle late into the frame. It could prove an inspired pick, supplying the Lions with someone who, as shown against Bristol the other night, can kick 50-metre spiral torpedos in addition to winning lineouts and scoring galloping tries. He and his new mates, though, will first be required to front up physically, with the 11th-hour addition of Courtney Lawes to the mix underlining that mission statement.
“I think South A have gone back to their DNA,” Gatland said. “Looking at the World Cup, it shows you what their mentality is. It’s about being physical and winning that physical battle. We want to play some really good rugby but at times we’re going to have to roll our sleeves up, get in the trenches and battle it out with them.”
With barely any time on a modern Lions tour to reinvent the tactical wheel, it will also be vital for everyone to gel swiftly off the field, both on the pre-tour camp among the Jersey gunboats – “We’ve just got to make sure that if we do go fishing we don’t go out too far,” Gatland quipped – and out in South Africa.
“If you add in the two-week camp before we go it could be up to 10 weeks away from home and in a bubble,” the Lions head coach cautioned. “I think the rugby’s going to be the easy part.”
From a pure resilience perspective – mental and physical – the 2021 Lions tour will be the ultimate test.