Monday 14 October 2019

Lions: Too much put on red in Gatland's big gamble

Conor George

IT wasn't a huge surprise that Warren Gatland would lean towards the Welsh players who helped him win the Grand Slam 12 months ago when announcing his Lions squad.

They are the players he is most familiar with and Wales are also the reigning Six Nations champions, having successfully defended their title this season.

Gatland did, however, maintain the tradition of causing some surprise and controversy with a couple of his picks. The selections of Saracens' tighthead prop Matt Stevens and hooker Dylan Hartley certainly fall into this category.

Stevens, it will be remembered, served a two-year ban for taking cocaine in 2009, while Gatland had a much publicised spat with Hartley ahead of the 2011 Six Nations game between England and Wales.

At the time Gatland identified Hartley as a weak link and goaded the New Zealander about a suspected volatility when he called him a "choker" in the build-up to the game.

"I saw him go to pieces at Leicester a few weeks ago and again on Saturday night. It just shows people can crack under pressure. It's another case of a Kiwi choking on the big occasion," said Gatland at the time.

In selecting the short-tempered Hartley over the more polished, although admittedly off-form Rory Best, the Lions coach has given a clear indication his game plan will lack any real subtlety – the Lions will be seeking to bully Australia's forwards and starve their backs of possession.

It's an ambitious plan, but one that has the potential to blow up in his face.

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Gatland's decision to opt for just two specialist play-makers in Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell obviously owes much to Jonny Wilkinson's decision not to accept the offer of a place on the Tour.

"I asked Jonny was he available to tour," said Gatland. "He said he was committed to Toulon and that he didn't think he was physically up to the tour.

"That was the end of that discussion."

Gatland did admit he might revisit the situation should either of Sexton or Farrell suffer injury. Scotland's Stuart Hogg will provide back-up as a utility back.

The other big surprise was the preference for Scotland's Sean Maitland over Ireland's talented wing Simon Zebo.

Zebo is one of the most exciting players to break through in the last 18 months and it had been thought his ability to cover full-back might sway the selection in his favour.

He can feel a little hard done by, as can Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll regarding the decision to overlook their experience and claims to the captain's armband. Instead he turned to the man who captained Wales to their 2012 Grand Slam title.

Gatland's squad is made up of 15 Welsh players, 10 from England, nine from Ireland and three from Scotland.

1 Is the balance of the selection right?

The most difficult aspect of the Lions selection is getting the balance between the nations correct. In 2009 Ireland had 14 of their Grand Slam-winning team initially selected.

Twenty Englishmen were picked by Clive Woodward in 2005, despite their finishing fourth in the Six Nations that season.

It would be churlish to argue with Wales' strong representation as they won the last two Six Nations championships, including a memorable Grand Slam last year.

Nevertheless, selecting 15 players from Wales and having a Welsh captain is a gamble by Gatland.

The English are likely to be up in arms over the snub delivered to their captain Chris Robshaw. However, the back-row is undoubtedly a hugely competitive area.

If the Lions win the series, then Gatland's selection will be hailed as a stroke of genius.

If they don't, it will be used as a stick to beat him with as he will be accused of having been overly loyal to players he will be coaching again next season.

2 Why did Gatland only pick two out-halves?

The simple answer is because Jonny Wilkinson turned down the chance to tour. When he was contacted the veteran out-half cited his commitment to Toulon and his fitness issues – "he said he was only just getting by week to week and may need an operation at the end of the season," the Lions coach revealed as the out-half's reasons for not touring.

It is entirely possible he will be called up at some stage of the tour – "we'll have that conversation if we have to" – but it is not a huge surprise only two specialist 10s have been selected. That was also the case four years ago.

It means that Sexton and Farrell will be afforded plenty of game time before the first Test on June 22 and both will be well warmed up as a result.

3 Who are the surprises selections?

Stevens, Maitland and Hartley are the stand-out debatable selections.

Maitland is the only player who can be regarded as a 'bolter,' although he is the same age as his 24-years-old Lions captain. It was also a surprise room wasn't found for Munster's Zebo. There will inevitably be changes to the squad as injuries take their toll and it is entirely probable Zebo will be called up at some stage.

Stevens over Mike Ross is a surprise given Ross' ability to lock out a scrum.

4 Is Sam Warburton the correct choice as captain?

No. One of either Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell should have been selected. And it is unfair on Warburton to be charged with captaining a squad that includes the captains from the last two tours.

There's no doubting Warburton is an impressive young man. He is composed and collected and, according to Gatland, is the only guaranteed Test starter as of today.

"I've worked closely with Sam and he's a young man with an old head on his shoulders," said Gatland.

"He did really well as the Welsh captain in the World Cup and is a Grand Slam-winning captain from 2012 as well."

He won't engender the same level of respect as O'Connell or O'Driscoll, though, and it is difficult not to believe the coach has erred here.

The argument for Warburton is that he is young and hungry and perhaps being free of the captaincy might facilitate the two stand-out Irish contenders to concentrate on their own games.

One cannot help but be reminded of O'Driscoll's response when that very question was put to him after he was stripped of the Irish captaincy: "I'd like to think I played some good games as captain too."

Indeed.

5 Who are the big losers?

It is bordering on criminal that Ross has been overlooked. Forwards coach Graham Rowntree intimated that they opted for a more dynamic player, but no one in the northern hemisphere locks out a scrum better than Ross.

Rowntree confirmed that he featured heavily in the discussions. That will be cold comfort to the player who should be travelling.

Best's lack of consistency out of touch during the Six Nations cost him dearly. That his accuracy didn't improve when back with Ulster didn't help, but surely he'd be a better pick than Dylan Hartley, who is a disciplinary disaster waiting to happen.

Maitland is an exciting pick. Zebo would have been even more exciting, while Ian Madigan might have been selected given his ability to cover the out-half, inside centre and full-back positions.

6 What is the likely Test selection right now?

L Halfpenny (Wales); T Bowe (Ireland), B O'Driscoll (Ireland), J Roberts (Wales), A Cuthbert (Wales); J Sexton (Ireland), M Phillips (Wales); C Healy (Ireland), T Youngs (England), A Jones (Wales); I Evans (Wales), P O'Connell (Ireland); S Warburton (Wales, capt), J Tipuric (Wales), T Falateu (Wales).

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