by Bernard Jackman
After months of speculation about the make up of the Lions squad, Warren Gatland and his management team put us and the players out of their misery and announced the initial 37 players that will have the honour of representing the British & Irish Lions in Australia this June.
With the semi-finals and finals of domestic and European competition and a week-long training camp in Carton House before they depart, it’s actually likely that some of the players named on Tuesday won't even get to board the plane.
I remember in 2005 I was part of an Irish squad heading off on a summer tour to Japan and when we were in Shannon Airport about to commence the journey Simon Easterby got a call that he was needed instead by Clive Woodward in New Zealand.
He ended up making the team for the third Test down there.
Gatland’s selection has a nice balanced look to it. He went with 21 forwards and 16 backs. Having six props will mean that they can do live scrummaging at training when they need to, and the scrum is certainly an area that they will single out to take on the Wallabies.
Interestingly, Robbie Deans has looked to strengthen Australia’s scrum by including Dan Palmer, a tight-head prop from the Brumbies who has signed for us here at Grenoble next season.
Palmer is the Mike Ross of Australian rugby in that he is a deep thinker on the scrum and up until now the Australian national team has not placed a high priority on that, preferring props who are more visible around the field.
Speaking of Ross, he is certainly unlucky to lose out to Matt Stevens. Stevens looks a shadow of the player he was before his drugs ban (over cocaine use) and was destroyed at the set piece by his former team-mate Andrew Sheridan in the Heineken Cup semi-final on Sunday.
The bigger picture is that Graham Rowntree is the England forwards and scrum coach, and with both English hookers included as well you would imagine that he had a big influence over the selection of the front rows.
England contribute three of the props with Mako Vunipola likely to fill the impact bench player role he had in the Six Nations.
Best unlucky to miss out on Test spot
Rory Best looked to be nailed on for a Lions spot six months ago, but some poor lineout performances in high profile matches recently probably cost him his spot.
In the second row, they have gone for Richie Gray on last season’s form but he is a fine athlete and the hard ground in Australia should bring out the best in him.
I fancy Paul O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones to be the Test pair again. Both will be fresh having missed a lot of the season through injury.
It was interesting reading a quote from Jones this week where he spoke about O’Connell saying to him after they won the third test in South Africa that it was nice to win a Test but that Lions tours are about winning the series.
I would have selected Nathan Hines instead of Ian Evans as I feel Hines is a better scrumager and ball-player than Evans. But Hines is likely to be unavailable until after the warm-up test in Hong Kong due to his Clermont commitments and that may have swung the vote away from him.
The back-row has a nice balanced look to it and with Sam Warburton being made captain, I can see Sean O'Brien being used at six or eight in the Test team.
Warburton’s form will be crucial as Australia have three world-class open sides available in Michael Hooper, Liam Gill and George Smith (David Pocock is out injured). The Lions need to win the battle on the ground and Warburton and Tipuric will have a huge task on their hands.
Farrell a concern as the back-up out-half
The only area of the squad that really worries me is the back up 10 options. Jonny Sexton is the man to lead this team from out-half, but the frailties that Owen Farrell displayed for England in Wales on the last day of the Six Nations and for Saracens against Toulouse at the weekend have to concern Gatland.
Stuart Hogg is the third choice 10 and while it is great that Sexton and Farrell will get a lot of game time in the warm-up games, I would have included Perpignan’s James Hook as a utility back.
Perpignan play their final match this weekend so his availability is not an issue. Hook has lots of experience at 10,12,13 and 15 and is a brilliant goal kicker.
He also is in great form at the moment and his non-inclusion makes me wonder if they plan on bringing Wilkinson out after the Top 14 season finishes.
Wilkinson’s match-winning ability means his arrival would give any squad a boost of confidence.
It is great to see Tommy Bowe get in - he is actually the smallest winger selected at 15 stone! I do think Simon Zebo would have been a better selection than Sean Maitland given his broken field running ability, big left foot and ability to play full-back as well as wing.
But overall I think that Gatland has picked a good blend of youth and experience. He has worked with Warburton as captain with Wales and respects his decision-making ability.
With no Irish on the coaching staff, and on that basis, I felt that it would have been better to use O’Connell or O’Driscoll. But it was refreshing to hear Warburton say how he would tap in to their leadership qualities.
Lions must beat Australia through set-piece power
Tactically, having watched a lot of the Australian franchise footage in this year’s Super Rugby, I don’t think we can beat them by throwing the ball around.
I feel that we need to use a strong set piece-based game and kick very shrewdly. It is worth noting that the ACT Brumbies under Jake White play a very attritional brand of rugby, which is very European in nature, and the other franchises struggle with it.
It will be fascinating to watch how the best players in the four nations gel and play off each other on this tour and while the Lions brand is hugely successful, the reality is that the last series win was 1997. It is vital that this group are successful.
My starting team from Warren Gatland’s selected 37 would be dominated by the Welsh and Irish, with England proving impact players like Vunipola, Tom Croft, Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi.
Let us know your Lions starting XV in the comments:
Bernard Jackman's Lions XV:
1) Cian Healy
2) Dylan Hartley
3) Adam Jones
4) Paul O’Connell
5) Alun-Wyn Jones
6) Sean O’Brien
7) Sam Warburton (c)
8) Toby Faletau
9) Mike Phillips
10) Jonny Sexton
11) George North
12) Jamie Roberts
13) Brian O’Driscoll
14) Tommy Bowe
15) Leigh Halfpenny