Friday 20 October 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Lions hype springs eternal as always but lack of world-class talent spells trouble for Gatland

Ireland's Simon Zebo Picture: Sportsfile
Ireland's Simon Zebo Picture: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

They're starting the hype nice and early anyway. The Lions squad announcement was accompanied by the usual nonsense about this being 'the strongest Lions squad ever.'

Really? Stronger than the one which defeated the All Blacks in 1971 and included the likes of JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Barry John, Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards, Ian McLauchlan, Willie John McBride and Mervyn Davies, who were not only the best in the world at the time in their respective positions, but rank among the all-time greats of the game?

There are very few players of that stature in this touring party which is also probably weaker than the squads which lost to New Zealand in 1993 and Australia in 2001. Who'd make a world XV right now? Furlong, maybe Itoje, Murray perhaps, a fit Billy Vunipola, George North if he regained his form from a few years back. It's a bit of a stretch, isn't it? The cupboard looks pretty bare. With the exception of North none of the wings or full-backs are within shouting distance of world class. And for all the talk of strength in depth the options at half-back are so poor that if anything happens to Murray or Johnny Sexton the Lions are as well to just come home.

Yet hype springs eternal at these moments. I can remember the catastrophic tour of New Zealand in 2005 being prefaced by similar talk about how new heights of modernity and sophistication would be attained in terms of preparation. Apparently sane individuals told us to be delighted that Clive Woodward would be bringing along Tony Blair's simian spin doctor Alistair Campbell to help with the psychological warfare side of things.

At least no-one's suggested bringing along Jeremy Corbyn's spinmeister Seumas Milne. Though it might be an idea to get hold of one of the lads from the United Airlines PR department. They'll be familiar with the kind of reputational damage control which might be required should the All Blacks play to their full potential this summer.

The most eye-catching thing about the squad is the disparity between the numbers of Welsh and Scottish players selected. Twelve of the former make the cut and only two of the latter. The ire of former Lions coach, and Scot, Jim Telfer is understandable. Scotland did, after all, trounce Wales and beat Ireland. The invocation of their heavy defeat by England as an explanation for their meagre representation is beside the point.

Even before that game it was predicted that Scotland would be lucky to get anyone apart from Stuart Hogg on the plane. Gatland's selection suggests that by and large his mind was made up at the start of the season and also that he was determined to reward Welsh players for services rendered in the past.

How else can you explain the choice of Dan Biggar over Finn Russell? Of four Welsh back-row forwards when Hamish Watson was omitted? And, closer to home, of Leigh Halfpenny over Simon Zebo? These selections suggest a manager who wants people he already knows around him. The surprise selections of Jared Payne and Ben Te'o suggest that when in doubt Gatland will always plump for the southern hemisphere player.

There is a tendency to go with the flow once a Lions squad is announced and there seems to be general agreement that Payne is worth his place. But if this is the case, why did no-one think of mentioning him beforehand? Does anyone in Ireland really think he's a more useful back than Zebo?

Telfer mentioned the lack of flair in the selected backs and I'd agree with him. There was a potential upside to Zebo that is absent from Payne. Zebo might have flourished and become a Test starter (there's no great gulf between him and Anthony Watson who'll probably be a Test winger). Payne, on the other hand, is being brought along to play midweek and mightn't even manage that.

Garry Ringrose is even unluckier than Zebo. Like the Munster man, he suffered from the unambitious nature of Ireland's back play under Joe Schmidt yet all the same he had a fine Six Nations campaign and in Leinster's match against Wasps showed the explosive nature of his talent. Would Leinster take Te'o back in preference to Ringrose? Precisely.

There was some classic Gatland pig-headedness in evidence last week and it doesn't bode well at all. In the words of a man from the country with only two Lions: Doomed, we're doomed, I tell you.

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