British and Irish Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland has named a controversial squad for the upcoming Lions tour to New Zealand this summer.
The 41-man squad includes sixteen Englishmen, twelve Welshmen, eleven Irishmen, but only two Scots.
The appointment of Sam Warburton as captain was not a surprise, however, after a promotional photo of the Welsh flanker leaked online earlier this week.
He is seen as a steady hand by rugby coaches, and is only the second player, after England World Cup Winner Martin Johnson, to captain two Lions tours.
However, what has led to anger amongst fans is that Warburton will be joined by eleven other Welshman—who, on the whole, performed poorly in this year’s Six Nations. The selection of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar in particular seems to suggest that Gatland has also considered previous performances in his selection process of rugby players, not only their current form.
Despite this, Ken Owens, consistently seen as the underdog during his playing career for the Llanelli Scarlets and Wales, can be assured he has been selected purely on his extraordinary form during the Six Nations championship earlier this year.
While Welsh fans may complain that there are not even more of their countrymen in the squad, it will be hard for them not to acknowledge the brilliant form of many English players in the squad: Mako Vunipola’s power will add intensity to the pack, Owen Farrell’s flair and kicking game will test the New Zealand defence, and Anthony Watson’s pace will be a necessity if the Lions hope to break the ferocious All Black gameline.
Yet, the squad’s announcement also produced more major shocks. The first was the exemption of England captain Dylan Hartley. The England captain’s omission means that he is the third consecutive England captain not to have been named in the Lions touring party, following Steve Borthwick and Chris Robshaw’s omissions in 2009 and 2013. While his aggression and competitiveness often gets the better of him, the fact that Hartley captained England to a record-equalling streak of 18 matches without defeat suggests his omission is unfair and strange.
As well as this, notable English players Mike Brown, Joe Launchbury and George Ford were absent from Gatland’s Lions squad, while Ben Te’o, who made his Test debut in 2016, was included in the bold squad announcement on April 19.
While the inclusion of eleven Irishman such as Jonny Sexton, Rory Best and Conor Murray will be welcomed across the home nations, Scottish fans have rightly objected to Gatland’s decision to include only two players from their impressive Six Nations campaign: Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour.
Speaking on BT Sport’s Facebook page after the announcement, former Ireland captain and Lions player Brian O’Driscoll conceded that Scotland were unlucky not to have more players in the touring party: “Beat Ireland, beat Wales—if I was Scottish I would feel hard done by. It’s the first time since 1908 they haven’t had a representative in the pack.”
Overall, Gatland and his coaching staff surprised the public and the world’s media. The Lions face a daunting task: attempting to topple the greatest rugby side (perhaps even the greatest sporting side) the world has ever seen. On top of this, the demanding schedule facing the British players has raised concerns: only this week former All Blacks and Lions coach Sir Graham Henry described the 10-match schedule as ‘suicidal’.
As well as this, the 2011 World Cup-winning coach has warned Gatland that Wales’ 40-7 humiliation against the Chiefs in Hamilton in 2016 shows many of the pitfalls of playing midweek matches against Super Rugby outfits.
The last few months of British rugby have been incredibly exciting, and if the drama surrounding this selection is anything to go by, the Lions tour itself should be one of the best in recent memory.
The Lions will arrive in New Zealand on Wednesday, May 31, four days before their first match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on June 3.
The full squad is as follows:
Forwards: Rory Best (IRL), Jack McGrath (IRL), Dan Cole (ENG), Ross Moriarty (WAL), Taulupe Faletau (WAL), Sean O’Brien (IRL), Tadhg Furlong (IRL), Peter O’Mahoney (IRL), Jamie George (ENG), Ken Owens (WAL), Iain Henderson (IRL), Kyle Sinckler (ENG), Maro Itoje (ENG), CJ Stander (IRL), Alun Wyn Jones (WAL), Justin Tipuric (WAL), George Kruis (ENG), Billy Vunipola (ENG), Courtney Lawes (ENG), Mako Vunipola (ENG), Joe Marler (ENG), Sam Warburton (WAL)
Backs: Dan Biggar (WAL), Jack Nowell (ENG), Elliot Daly (ENG), Jared Payne (IRL), Jonathan Davies (WAL), Jonathan Sexton (IRL), Owen Farrell (ENG), Tommy Seymour (SCO), Leigh Halfpenny (WAL), Ben Te’o (ENG), Robbie Henshaw (IRL), Anthony Watson (ENG), Stuart Hogg (SCO), Rhys Webb (WAL), Jonathan Joseph (ENG), Liam Williams (WAL), Conor Murray (IRL), Ben Youngs (ENG), George North (WAL)