Tuesday 12 December 2017

10 Irish make alternative Lions squad

Dylan Hartley, Garry Ringrose and George Ford
Dylan Hartley, Garry Ringrose and George Ford

On Wednesday, Warren Gatland named an enlarged 41-man Lions squad to fly to New Zealand, but still there were some glaring omissions.

Here is a Lions squad from those who weren't selected to highlight just how many players were worthy of consideration...

Cian Healy (loosehead prop, Ireland)

Surely on the most surprise exclusions. Prior to the Lions squad announcement, Healy would have been on most people's list to be on the plane to New Zealand, especially as he has previous experience as a tourist.

He has lost out to England's Joe Marler, but the Leinsterman will be the first man they call upon if the Lions need injury-enforced replacements.

Rob Evans (loosehead prop, Wales)

Although not as big a shock as Healy, Evans can still consider himself unlucky. It is unusual that the Lions do not have Welsh representation in the front row and it must have been a close call for Warren Gatland to leave him out.

The 25-year-old Scarlet was at one stage a shoo-in to be flying to NZ, but an inconsistent Six Nations has seen Joe Marler jump ahead.

Gethin Jenkins (loosehead prop, Wales)

It would have been a big shock had 36-year-old Jenkins been selected but on tours like these experience can be invaluable, especially with many first-time tourists on the plane.

Jenkins has been on winning and losing Lions tours and even at 36 he was playing some of the best rugby of his career before injury struck. He is fit again, though, and there's every chance he could get a call as an injury replacement.

The return of Gethin Jenkins will boost Wales

Samson Lee (tighthead prop, Wales)

Lee has missed out on selection for the Lions because of a wildcard pick by Warren Gatland. He went with England's Kyle Sinckler because of the impact the Harlequin can have off the bench.

Lee suffers because what he offers is too similar to that of Tadhg Furlong and Dan Cole - a steady scrum but not much mobility. However, should either Furlong or Cole go down injured, Lee will undoubtedly get a call to fly out.

Zander Fagerson (tighthead prop, Scotland)

This is a Lions tour too soon for the 21-year-old Glasgow Warriors No 3 but expect him to be on the plane for the next one to South Africa in four years time.

The chances were always miniscule of Fagerson being selected but after Scotland were ravaged by injury in the front row for the Six Nations - especially to Lions banker WP Nel - the young man stepped up and let nobody down.

Tomas Francis (tighthead prop, Wales)

Like Zander Fagerson, something incredible would had to have happened for the Exeter No 3 to have earned a call-up to the Lions squad.

Nevertheless, Francis is highly-rated in both England and Wales and with top quality tightheads in short supply, could still don a Lions jersey if an SOS call needs to be made.

Dylan Hartley (hooker, England)

Arguably the biggest omission from the Lions touring party. The England captain was apparently within a whisker of being selected but missed out to team-mate Jamie George and has now missed his final chance to become a Lion.

Like Samson Lee earlier, Hartley suffers for his lack of versatility, with similar-style No 2s Rory Best and Ken Owens ahead of him in the pecking order. However, his leadership skills would have proved invaluable in the land of his birth.

Sean Cronin (hooker, Ireland)

He is back to full fitness after injury and is the complete package - big, strong, decent set-piece and mobile.

The Leinsterman ran out of time to prove himself to the selectors, despite some fine cameos, but the Lions hierarchy may have missed a trick by not selecting the bulldozing 30 year-old.

Ireland's Sean Cronin has been ruled out of the RBS 6 Nations with a hamstring injury

Fraser Brown (hooker, Scotland)

Brown would have been a real contender right up until the point he tip-tackled Elliot Daly. The Scot may not be the biggest No 2 but he is strong, mobile and is ahead of Ross Ford in the Scotland pecking order because his line-out throwing is top-draw.

Unfortunately, he blotted his copybook during the Six Nations and against the All Blacks discipline will be key.

Joe Launchbury (lock, England)

How Launchbury is not on the plane to New Zealand is beyond us and he can consider himself to be even more unfortunate than Dylan Hartley. The Wasp is a walking man-of-the-match award and enjoyed a stand-out Six Nations.

The likes of George Kruis and Iain Henderson can consider themselves very fortunate to be selected instead. Launchbury - tough as teak, mobile and possessing a remarkable engine - would be advised to keep his mobile switched on because if injury strikes in the second row, he should be the go-to man.

Jonny Gray (lock, Scotland)

The lack of Scottish representation in the 2017 Lions squad is baffling considering the quality of player that has been overlooked. First and foremost in that category is the younger Gray.

He may not have been a Test candidate to start, but he would have done a sterling job for the mid-week side with his power, speed and agility.

Richie Gray (lock, Scotland)

There is an argument that a touring party is all about combinations, putting pieces together that fit to make a better whole. What better combination than two brothers?

Having Richie and Jonny Gray would not only have increased Scottish numbers - there are four Home Nations after all - but also provided a familiarity in unfamiliar surroundings and a second-row combination proven at international level.

Donnacha Ryan (lock, Ireland)

Had Ryan been selected for the Lions squad - and right up until it was named he was being reported as IN - he would have been a real bolter having only popped up on the radar during the back-end of the Six Nations. But against New Zealand he is exactly the sort of character you want - tough and uncompromising.

He, alongside Peter O'Mahony, dismantled England's line-out during the Six Nations.

52 SPORT RYAN 1302066.jpg
Ireland locks Henderson and Ryan (pictured) are thought to be strong contenders for selection following their thunderous performance against England. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Devin Toner (lock, Ireland)

The line-out technician. Toner is one of the tallest locks in world rugby and almost always guarantees you clean ball at the set-piece. He has also become a master of the choke tackle.

The 30 year-old also knows what it takes to beat the All Blacks having tasted victory in Chicago. His place on the plane has seemingly gone to England's George Kruis - another line-out expert.

Chris Robshaw (blindside flanker, England)

Warren Gatland has selected CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony as his specialist blindsides, with Ross Moriarty and Sam Warburton able to slot in, so competition for places in the back row was always going to be tough, but before injury Robshaw was playing better than all of them.

He could not have been sidelined at a worst time but his recent form for Harlequins proves what a class act he is and is can consider himself very unfortunate not to be flying.

John Barclay (blindside flanker, Scotland)

The 30 year-old is an outstanding back-row forward but plays in the most competitive area when it comes to Lions selection and his performances during the Six Nations - the last chance for many to stake their claims - were not enough to usurp CJ Stander or Peter O'Mahony.

Tom Wood (blindside/openside flanker, England)

Back in from the cold after being frozen out by Eddie Jones, England and Northampton No 6 Wood must wonder how, at 30 years old, he is yet to experience a Lions tour.

On his day he is one of the best flankers in world rugby, destructive at the breakdown, a nuisance at the line-out and a tackling machine. Unfortunately, his form is considered too inconsistent for Jones and therefore his stock has fallen.

Hamish Watson (openside flanker, Scotland)

Scottish representation was always going to be slightly smaller than the other nations - although it should not have been as low as two - and openside flanker Watson was tipped by many to have done enough to warrant selection.

He was tremendous for Scotland during the Six Nations, putting his body (and occasionally face) on the line. He is also a true openside specialist in the Neil Back mould, something the Lions lack.

James Haskell (openside flanker, England)

Like Chris Robshaw, Haskell has been the victim of the English injury curse. Before being laid low, he was in the form of his life, had been key to England's victorious tour of Australia - man of the series no less - and was a shoo-in to become a first-time tourist with the Lions.

While sidelined, though, Sam Warburton and Sean O'Brien upped their games and Haskell was left with too few opportunities to restate his claim.

Jamie Heaslip (No 8, Ireland)

Heaslip must be cursing his luck that he happens to be playing at the same time as Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau. With only two slots for specialist No 8s, the Irishman was always going to struggle, especially with Faletau's return to form after injury.

The Leinsterman, though, was another member of the Ireland side that defeated New Zealand in the States last year and will be waiting in the wings if either Billy or Toby - both of whom have had their injury concerns - break down again.

Leinster's Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Ryan Wilson (No 8, Scotland)

This is a man who never has a bad game. The problem Wilson has is he has the likes of Billy Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau, Jamie Heaslip and Nathan Hughes as direct competition.

Danny Care (scrum-half, England)

The sniper and a No 9 of real class and experience, but playing second-fiddle to Ben Youngs with England was always going to harm his chances of touring with the Lions.

Greig Laidlaw (scrum-half, Scotland)

Picking up an injury is any sportsman's worse nightmare, particularly when said injury occurs while you are playing some of the best rugby of you career.

Laidlaw and Scotland were becoming a force to be reckoned with - and the Gloucester half-back was a genuine contender for the Lions - before the 31 year-old suffered ligament damage.

He is now back to full training and his experience would have been a real asset for the Lions.

Kieran Marmion (scrum-half, Ireland)

Marmion would have been a real bolter had he been included, and with the likes of Conor Murray, Rhys Webb and Ben Youngs available to Warren Gatland it was always a long shot, but his performance for Ireland against England during the Six Nations was a tour de force. The 25 year-old is certainly a Lions tourists of the future.

Marmion: Exceptional performance. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Finn Russell (fly-half, Scotland)

The Scotland fly-half must be asking himself what more he could have done to get on the plane to New Zealand. With Ireland's Johnny Sexton the favourite for the Lions No 10 jersey, it was then a battle to who would provide back-up.

Russell, Dan Biggar, George Ford and Owen Farrell were the contenders - with Farrell a banker as he also covers inside centre - leaving it a three-way battle and Russell in pole position.

Instead, Warren Gatland plumped with Biggar, despite a so-so Six Nations, because he is supposedly more robust in defence.

George Ford (fly-half, England)

As mentioned earlier, combinations are key for any touring party and with Owen Farrell on the plane it was thought his England partner in crime - Ford - would warrant a place in the squad.

As far as accuracy of pass and the ability to play flat goes, Ford is better than Dan Biggar, Finn Russell and even Johnny Sexton, but he is a confidence players who relies too much on a dominant pack and Farrell on his shoulder.

Henry Slade (fly-half/inside centre, England)

Slade is the ultimate utility back. He can play at fly-half and across the middle of the park and should he be picked as a centre can act as a second playmaker.

If the Exeter man can follow in the footsteps of Owen Farrell, he could be very special indeed.

Jamie Roberts (inside centre, Wales)

Despite not even being a starter for Wales these days, Roberts was being reported as in the Lions squad right up until an hour before its announcement when it was leaked that he had not actually been selected.

And while his selection would have been unexpected, it would not have been a total surprise. Roberts is a Lions veteran who has worked with Warren Gatland for years and knows how he likes to play. The 30 year-old would have been a steady hand but his place in the Lions squad has gone to England newbie Ben Te'o.

Alex Dunbar (inside centre, Scotland)

Dunbar was thought to be a real Lions contender right up until Scotland were marmalised by England in the Six Nations and his defence was exposed by Jonathan Joseph.

One bad game, though, does not make you a bad player and Dunbar had been immense in defence during Scotland's victory over Ireland. He is another Scot who can consider himself unfortunate to be snubbed.

Garry Ringrose (outside centre, Ireland)

If Warren Gatland's Lions squad had been picked solely on form, 22-year-old Ireland centre Ringrose would have been a certainty.

He has been a sensation for the Irish and it is understood it was a last-minute decision by Gatland to select England's Jonathan Joseph instead.

Another young, rising star - Scotland's Huw Jones - would also have been in with a shout before suffering a season-ending injury.

Garry Ringrose in action for Ireland

Keith Earls (outside centre/wing, Ireland)

Utility players are a godsend for all coaches and they don't get much better than Earls. He can play at centre or wing equally well - and the only reason has hasn't been included in the Lions squad, despite late rumours claiming he had been, is that Elliot Daly is in instead.

Simon Zebo (wing, Ireland)

If it wasn't for question marks over his size and defence, Zebo would have been a Lions certainty.

The Munsterman has the pace of Anthony Watson but lost out to the Englishman come final selection. However, don't be surprised if he is called upon - just like Christian Wade was four years ago - if injuries hit the tourists.

Sean Maitland (wing, Scotland)

Scotland are blessed with a number of world-class wingers in Tommy Seymour, Tim Visser and Maitland and it was Seymour who got the call from Warren Gatland.

However, it could just as deservingly gone to Maitland who has previous Lions experience and has been a key member of Scotland's exciting back line.

Tim Visser (wing, Scotland)

So big he could easily be a forward, he is the Scottish version of George North and raised his game to new standards during the Six Nations.

Unfortunately for Visser, the Lions have North.

Jonny May (wing, England)

An out-and-out gas man. In a straight race, May would probably beat anyone and and he has an uncanny ability to slip out of the tackle.

Eddie Jones has been selecting him ahead of Jack Nowell for England but it is Nowell who got the nod from Warren Gatland.

Rob Kearney (full-back, Ireland)

A real shock exclusion. It had been thought Warren Gatland would have named Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg in his squad, with Welshman Halfpenny also able to slot in on the wing, but Jack Nowell's surprise inclusion has come at the expense of the Leinsterman.

His solidity in defence, dependability under the high ball and previous Lions experience make his omission baffling.

Mike Brown (full-back, England)

Brown's inclusion in Warren Gatland's squad was always going to be a long shot, what with the likes of Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Rob Kearney also contenders.

The Englishman brings spike - a bit of mongrel - to every team he plays for and the Lions could certainly do with some of that in NZ.


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