Irish and English overlooked as Moriarty ruled out of Lions tour
Location, location, location. Warren Gatland knows he’s about to get it in the neck having called six players up to his Lions squad on the basis of proximity and he’s banking on Test success eradicating the memory just as it did four years ago.
And now, having not picked a back-row among the reinforcements, he won’t replace Ross Moriarty who has been ruled out of the tour with the back injury he picked up on the opening game of the tour.
Gatland initially blamed that injury on the fact that he made the journey from Auckland to Whangarei in a sponsored car for a community engagement.
Before the Moriarty news broke, the New Zealander added four Welsh players and two Scots to his panel and they will go on to the bench for the clash with the Chiefs on Tuesday as the tourists look to ring-fence their match-day 23 for the first Test in a week’s time.
The logic behind the decision seems sound, even if it inflates the squad to an unwieldy-looking 45 – but there are quality players in the England and Ireland squads who will be miffed when they look at the list of the latest Lions.
Gatland flagged his decision in September and did something similar when adding Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt and Shane Williams ahead of the Brumbies game in the week of the first Test against Australia.
Welsh quartet Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis have been confirmed, with Scottish pair Finn Russell and Allan Dell set to be announced as long as they come through this morning’s meeting with Australia in Sydney unscathed.
It is hardly a stellar crew. Davies is arguably the next best scrum-half, while Russell is a decent option. Francis is a tighthead with plenty of Test experience but second-row Hill and hooker Dacey barely register. Dell was arguably the worst loosehead in the Six Nations.
Gatland will argue that time-zones and travel dictated his decisions, but the red jersey is supposed to be about being the best and it is hard to argue a case for most of the new additions.
Certainly, Cian Healy can feel aggrieved at being over-looked; as can England captain Dylan Hartley, out-half George Ford and second-row Joe Launchbury. Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan can also feel aggrieved.
Joe Schmidt has not had his say on the issue, but England coach Eddie Jones has questioned whether the call-ups devalue the jersey.
"The Lions is a prestigious team - when you become a Lion, you're remembered for life," Jones told the BBC.
"My only comment would be I would like to see it picked on merit rather than geographical proximity.
"It's only a 13-hour trip from here to New Zealand (from Argentina where England are on tour). The (England) boys could be there."
There are even question marks about whether the players he has called up are the best operators from the two squads in question.
Is Hill a better option than Jonny Gray? Could the experienced WP Nel provide a better option than the suspect Francis? Is Sam Davies a better player than Russell?
What makes the situation even more perplexing is that Steve Hansen seemed to know about it before anyone else and broke the news at his press conference on Thursday.
The All Blacks coach has been able to get under the tourists’ skin thus far and the pressure is only going to ramp up further ahead of next week’s first Test.
With Owen Farrell a doubt for the first Test and Ross Moriarty now joining Stuart Hogg in leaving the tour without being directly replaced it leaves the tour in a spin ahead of this morning’s game against the Maori.