Warren Gatland decides on Lions squad
It’s make your mind up time for Warren Gatland this weekend, as the Lions’ Head Coach prepares to announce his 37-strong squad to tour New Zealand this summer. Most of his lingering doubts were resolved during the recent Six Nations tournament but Gatland will have watched the Champions Cup quarter-finals last week with considerable interest.
From an Irish point of view this will be good news as both Leinster and Munster dominated their opponents last week, and players like Henshaw and Ringrose for Leinster and Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo for Munster, will have enhanced their chances of selection. Most people have concentrated on the test team selection recently but we will try to put together a likely 37-man squad.
The full squad is as follows:
One of the easiest selections for the test team will be at 15 where Stuart Hogg has been the stand out player for the past two seasons. Given Gatland’s Welsh connections he will probably go with Leigh Halfpenny for the supporting role although his form at both place kicking and in general play has dipped this year. Liam Williams will probably be selected as a winger cum fullback to provide additional cover. Jared Payne may just lose out.
Choices: Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny.
George North needed a big Six Nations and he duly responded, particularly against Ireland where his two tries proved crucial. As mentioned Liam Williams will provide cover for all back three places. The other choices are less obvious. Elliot Daly had a fine Six Nations and can cover a number of positions. The remaining places may go to two from, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Tommy Seymour or Simon Zebo.
Choices: George North, Liam Williams, Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell, Tommy Seymour
Owen Farrell will be an automatic selection and he will provide back up cover for fly-half also. The other stand out centre has been Robbie Henshaw and he will challenge for test selection. Jonathan Joseph redeemed himself after a shaky start to the Six Nations and he will probably go. The remaining selection is less obvious. Garry Ringrose has improved with every game and his excellent form against Wasps last week may have helped his cause. But Jonathan Davies is known to be a favourite of Gatland and may well get the trip despite an average Six Nations.
Choices: Owen Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph, Jonathan Davies.
Jonathan Sexton is the stand out choice for the test team and cover will be Owen Farrell. The third choice is more difficult with the contenders, Finn Russell, Dan Biggar and George Ford. The Scotsman has shown the best form recently and may well get the vote. Choices: Jonathan Sexton, Finn Russell. Scrum-halves Conor Murray is the likely test nine and he will be challenged by Rhys Webb. Ben Youngs and Greg Laidlaw will contest the third place. Choices: Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs. Props The Irish front row has been a revelation this season and there is likely to be an unprecedented three Irish props in the party, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong. Mako Vunapola and Dan Cole will probably make the trip and the impressive Harlequin Kyle Sinckler may be a wild card selection.
Choices: Jack McGrath, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Dan Cole, Mako Vunapola.
Rory Best and Ken Owens have been the outstanding hookers during the Six Nations. Despite being England captain Dylan Hartley has been disappointing and he may lose out to Jamie George. Sean Cronin may have an outside chance.
Choices: Rory Best, Ken Owens, Jamie George.
There is no position where Gatland is so spoiled for choice than second-row. England could provide as many as four candidates. Maro Itoje is certain to travel, providing cover for blindside flanker as well. George Kruis did not feature in the Six Nations but is likely to make the trip along with Joe Launchbury and Alan Wyn Jones. The other candidates include Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Courtney Lawes, Jonny and Richie Gray.
Choices: Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Alan Wyn Jones, Jonny Gray.
The backrow is always a contentious area and there are difficult choices to make. CJ Stander is certain to travel as is Sam Warburton. Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien have probably done enough to warrant selection. Peter O’Mahony finished the Six Nations strongly and Chris Robshaw who didn’t feature in the tournament will probably contend for the other place.
Choices: CJ Stander, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony.
No. 8 Billy Vunapola missed most of the Six Nations but is certain to join his brother on the plane and Gatland is a fan of Toby Falatau. Jamie Heaslip may make a third Lions tour but Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander can cover No. 8 so Gatland may settle for just two specialists.
Choices: Billy Vunapola, Toby Falatau
Selection of a captain will be interesting with the front runners being Alan Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton and Rory Best.
Choice: Alan Wyn Jones.
Warren Garland has shown in the past he is unafraid to make brave and even unpredictable decisions, just ask Brian O’Driscoll and he is likely to raise some eyebrows with one or two of his selections.
It will be a strong squad he takes with him and after Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks the touring party will go with the belief that New Zealand are beatable even on their own soil. It’s 46 years since the Lions won a series in New Zealand, but this year’s squad is probably the strongest to visit the Land of the Long White Cloud, since 1971.