The Irish Times - Sports Weekend
If we were in Gatland’s shoes . . .
As Warren Gatland prepares to name his squad for the British and Lions tour of South Africa, we select the 36 men we would bring as well as the starting XV that could claim a momentous Test series win No Tuilagi – this squad needs to be match- fit, harden
The parameters are different from four years ago. Back then, in those wild, crazy, pre- pandemic days, Warren Gatland was permitted t o bri ng a 41- man squad, which was supplemented by the so- called Geography Six as he sought to protect his front- liners for the last two Tests. Amid all the furore, it worked too. The Lions won the second Test and drew the third.
However, New Zealand was a longer tour ( 10 matches compared to eight), and a longer haul. The Lions were also more flush with cash.
The chosen 36 have to be fairly match- fit, hardened and ready to go, not on the road back with little game time.
Alas, this probably rules out, for example, Caelan Doris, whose end- of- year form must have propelled him into consideration. The same applies to others who might otherwise have made the cut, such as Manu Tuilagi, despite being something of a cause célèbre across the water.
Proven Lions pedigree has to be mixed with an infusion of newcomers, first- who have shown their mettle at Test level, however recently, ie Louis Rees- Zammit ( right), who is riding the crest of a wave. Versatility is a bonus, although most good Test players have an e l e ment o f t h a t i n t h e i r make- up.
A 20- 16 split seems right, starting with three hookers, and six props, although with that versatility in mind, Andrew Porter’s ability to pack down on both sides is a string to his bow.
This allows for four or five locks and six or seven loose forwards, which ideally would include one, and possibly two, players who can play in both the secondrow and backrows. Such a trait nails down Maro Itoje’s place in the squad, and enhances the prospects of
Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne.
But the backrow remains, uber competitive, and hence I’m not happy omitting Hamish Watson.
Four years ago, the Lions were at their best when expressing themselves, especiall y with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as dual playmakers. However, given what will be coming at them from the Springboks, plenty of kicking and huge physicality at set- piece and across the gain line, these Lions will have to roll their sleeves up and compete i n an arm wrestle as well.
Farrell, for example, did not have a vintage Six Nations but ticks plenty of these boxes and can t r a v e l a s a t h i r d outhalf/ centre, allowing for four of the latter.
Despite being sidelined this week, Sexton is the form 10 f r om t he Si x Nations. He played the full 80 in Ireland’s last three wins and played comfortably more minutes ( 310) at outhalf than Dan Biggar ( 294), Finn Russell ( 284) and Farrell, who played just the first 69 minutes there against Scotland and the last four games at 12. Sexton comfortably outscored the other three as well.
In all of this of course, all views are coloured by our nationalities, and this even applies to coaches, as well as their professional ports of call. This won’t be the squad announced on Thursday. It is compiled a tad through green- tinged glasses. But hey, so be it.