Friday 22 November 2019

Tony Ward picks 11 Irishmen in his Lions squad but there is no Rob Kearney

Veteran of two tours misses out on my selection because New Zealand trip requires more versatility

Rob Kearney
Rob Kearney
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Tomorrow the white smoke will finally rise above the Hilton Hotel in London as Warren Gatland unveils his initial 37-man Lions squad for the tour to New Zealand.

I say initial because you can bet your bottom NZ dollar that seven or eight more will be called upon as replacements before the final Test is completed on July 8.

A schedule of 10 gruelling matches in the most intimidating rugby environment means cover will be needed at the ready. It will come nowhere close to the 50 players (44 initially, plus six replacements) requested by Clive Woodward in the whitewash of 2005, but as Lions touring goes this is as tough as it gets.

I'd imagine Gatland had 30 players pencilled by the end of the Six Nations - a competition that was effectively a five-part trial for the Lions.

The real difficulty will have been in filling those last few names - the six or seven who could make or break the tour.

Getting the chemistry right is every bit as important as selecting the most talented individuals. Gatland has been trawling the Four Nations in search of the right characters as well as the right players.

Also, as anybody who has ever been involved in any tour at any level will know, versatility is vital. The ability to chop and change position mid-tour or even mid-match is a major string to a player's bow on tour.

Bringing versatile players on tour gives a coach so many extra options when picking his party.

For example, the case could be made for taking just one specialist full-back, Stuart Hogg, given that Anthony Watson, Liam Williams and Simon Zebo - all predominantly used on the wing by their countries - can all cover the last line of defence.

Rob Kearney is recovering from injury and is a proven performer for the Lions but given that he is unlikely to be close to match fitness, I would take the out-of-sorts Leigh Halfpenny as cover for Hogg, who was by a distance the outstanding full-back in the Six Nations.

Similarly, Owen Farrell can play out-half or inside-centre, Elliot Daly on the wing or in the centre. Robbie Henshaw too had plenty of game-time at full-back in his early days with Connacht.

There is also versatility up front where second-rows Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson could move to the back-row, and many of the specialist back-rows can cover all three breakaway positions.

I don't believe there should be quotas of players from each of the four Unions on the Lions tour; my selections contains 13 English, 11 Welsh, 11 Irish and just two Scots. I do feel guilty about the meagre Scottish representation, given how well they performed in the Six Nations, yet I genuinely don't think any other Scottish player is better than the men I have picked.

Flanker Hamish Watson, second-row Johnny Gray, and wings Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland are among those who will have their advocates.

I have also gone for a 17/20 split between backs and forwards; Gatland may opt for 16/21.

A key criterion for me is to have ball-carrying forwards in every line of the scrum, capable of meeting the All Black pack head on in the gain-line battle that could decide the series.

The Lions are spoilt for choice in this regard: I have for example left out James Haskell, George Kruis and Luke Charteris.

I have also gone for a bolter in Samson Lee at tighthead given the Welshman's ball-carrying ability.

The hooking position is a difficult one, with Rory Best well worth a tour place, yet England's second choice Jamie George has the credentials too. Dylan Hartley is worth his place as player but nowhere remotely close to captain.

My call for the captaincy is still Sam Warburton, despite his injury - even if he is not expected to make it for the opening Test. Captaincy is important, but in a squad set to be full of leaders, form is even more so.

My Lions squad

Full-backs: S Hogg (Scotland), L Halfpenny (Wales);
Wings: A Watson (England), L Williams (Wales), G North (Wales), E Daly (England), S Zebo (Ireland);
Centres: J Joseph (England), D Taylor (Scotland), R Henshaw (Ireland), O Farrell (England);
Out-halves: J Sexton (Ireland), D Biggar (Wales);
Scrum-halves: C Murray (Ireland), R Webb (Wales), B Youngs (England);
Props: M Vunipola (England), J McGrath (Ireland), J Marler (England), T Furlong (Ireland), D Cole (England), S Lee (Wales);
Hookers: R Best (Ireland), K Owens (Wales), D Hartley (England);
Second-rows: M Itoje (England), J Launchbury (England), A-W Jones (Wales), C Lawes (England), I Henderson (Ireland);
Back-rows: P O'Mahony (Ireland), S Warburton (Wales, capt)), J Tipuric (Wales), S O'Brien (Ireland), CJ Stander (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales), B Vunipola (England).

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