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Squad Announcement sparks Debate

Like just about every rugby writer, fan, and probably player, I have been selecting and reselecting Lions squads for months now. In fact if I am being totally honest I think I have probably been doing it since the moment the final whistle blew in that 3rd Test in South Africa four years ago.

You see, I just love the Lions, what they represent, the passion they bring out in players, coaches, and fans, the fact that they are the best of the best. To me it is the ultimate rugby team, the ultimate expression of what rugby is all about. As a certain Mr Telfer famously said ‘to win for the Lions in a Test match is the ultimate’, watching the Lions win a Test match comes a pretty close second in my book.

So it was with a huge amount of excitement that I attended the Lions Squad Announcement yesterday, excitement that as a rugby fan I was privileged enough to be at the announcement, the place that every rugby fan in Britain and Ireland wanted to be. Excitement at finally learning the identities of the men charged with looking after that famous red shirt as they take on the Australians.

Were they to be who we were all expecting, will they be up to the challenge, what sort of balance is there in the squad? Were the Warburton captaincy rumours true?

Well, to the easy question first, the Sam Warburton captaincy rumours were true. The most prestigious position in British and Irish rugby was awarded to the Welshman, yes there were other candidates, notably Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, but Warburton was and is Gatland’s man.

Of course he was asked about his decision not to captain Wales against England, a point that many believed was a major blot on his Lions captaincy credentials. The eloquence with which he answered the question though left us all in no doubt that he was the man for the job.

He explained that he believes you should lead by example, through your performance, and he felt that at that moment in time he was not performing well enough and therefore did not deserve to be asking people to follow his lead. In one sentence he went from ‘captaincy bottler’ to a selfless team man and a man of integrity. He spoke of using the experience of the likes of O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Jenkins and Phillips, the doubters fell silent.

To the squad at large though, there were certainly some surprises, in my final prediction I had 32 out of the 37 that made the tour, I was one of the lucky ones, plenty had far fewer, showing just how unpredictable and subjective selection is.

The big surprises all came in the front row to be honest, the exclusion of Rory Best in favour of Dylan Hartley was the one major omission shock, while the inclusion of Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens certainly caught most off guard, particularly given that Stevens had retired from international rugby and has been somewhat off the radar.

The non-selection of two national captains in Chris Robshaw and Kelly Brown is certainly worthy of a few column inches but in truth comes as no great shock to anyone. With only five spaces on the flank available there just was not enough room for them.

In the backline, indeed throughout the squad, the biggest talking point began to emerge shortly after the announcement as it became clear the Jonny Wilkinson had been asked on Monday if he would be available to tour but he had said he could not be sure his body would last and that he had to commit to Toulon until the end of the domestic season.

It seemed that the door has been left open to call him up as an injury replacement but it was not clear whether he would have been selected in addition to the fly halves selected or in preference to one of them.

What was clear though is that only two fly halves were selected, meaning that should one be injured there is no obvious immediate back up within the squad. However Warren Gatland, and later Rob Howley, both suggested that Stuart Hogg is considered as potential cover in the position with Gatland even saying Hogg ‘may even start a game at ten’.

It is certainly a controversial move given that the young Scot has never really played there, however there was even more for the fullback to consider as it was also revealed that he was an option at centre should one of the four selected fall foul of injury.

Other than that though there were no major selection quibbles, some may say that they would have preferred Zebo to Maitland or Care or Laidlaw instead of Murray but they are certainly not the type of calls that could be classed as anything even close to approaching controversial.

The balance of the squad is probably the area that creates the most debate though, the forwards, the scrum halves and the back three all look very nicely balanced, but it is that key area of the midfield where options perhaps look a little thin.

With just two fly halves and four centres, and no ‘utility’ man, there are not a lot of options, particularly when you consider that the great Brian O’Driscoll will need to have his body managed throughout the tour and so is unlikely to be playing any back to back fixtures.

There is a slight worry doing the rounds about the fact that Jamie Roberts is the only recognised inside centre in the party, but it seems to me that the reality is that all four of the touring centres could really fulfil the responsibilities of either centre position, it is quite clear that there is no plan for a second 5/8th option so I would imagine that Warren Gatland will be comfortable with any of them in the 12 berth.

Of course there is the possibility of Owen Farrell spending some time in the centre, it seems unlikely given that he is one of only two fly halves, along with Jonny Sexton, but he certainly has plenty of experience there at both club and international level.

However with regard to the slim number of fly halves Gatland was very clear, he wants to give them both as much game time as possible ahead of the first Test, and he believes that a third fly half just simply would not get the game time and would feel as though he had no chance of Test selection.

Test selection, that is the theme that runs throughout this squad, it is why players like Matt Stevens have been chosen over the likes of Euan Murray and Mike Ross, with Adam Jones and Dan Cole ahead of him, Matt Stevens offers something completely different to them and that means that he has a genuine chance of a place in the Test 23, where a Murray or a Ross would have almost immediately felt like a dirt tracker.

I would say that with the exception of Connor Murray every single player will easily be able to see themselves in the matchday 23 and that is a crucial factor on a Lions tour, everyone needs to feel as though they are in with a genuine chance of selection.

Of course though there are some players at the moment who are more likely than others to be the Test squad than others but the point is that everyone will feel in with a chance.

With that in mind, here is the side that I would pick for the 1st Test against Australia on the 22nd June:

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Tommy Bowe 13. Brian O’Driscoll 12. Jamie Roberts 11. George North 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Mike Phillips 1. Cian Healy 2. Richard Hibbard 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun Wyn Jones 5. Paul O’Connell 6. Dan Lydiate 7. Sam Warburton (c) 8. Jamie Heaslip.

16. Tom Youngs 17. Gethin Jenkins 18. Dan Cole 19. Richie Gray 20. Sean O’Brien 21. Ben Youngs 22. Owen Farrell 23. Rob Kearney

No Englishmen or Scots I realise, but much will change between now and then of course and in the likes of Tom Youngs, Manu Tuilagi, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg there are a number of players who could really develop their game on tour and march towards a Test place.

The other big point about selection for me was that while it is fun and pertinent to talk about those that miss out on selection, the likelihood is that those who we are most surprised to see left out will probably end up on tour anyway as injury replacements.

It is a sad truth of Lions tours that for some unfortunate players their tour will be cut short through injury, but it is the slim comforter for those left behind and there is a great tradition on Lions tours of injury replacements coming in and making the Test team.

Indeed in every single professional tour a player not originally selected has made the Test side; Tom Croft in 2009, Ryan Jones in 2005, Martin Corry in 2001 and even Paul Wallace in 1997.

For me though this is an excellent squad, one capable of playing different brands of rugby and one that is full of pace, power and talent and I cannot wait for the action to start.

By Angus Savage

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