Standing tall British & Irish Lions skipper Alun Wyn Jones towers above the other contenders
Coach Gatland perhaps gives glimpse of battle plan in selections
● Former Springbok captain Naas Botha agrees Billy Vunipola’s shock omission may be the first real indication of the British & Irish Lions’ intention to avoid trench warfare in their Test series against the Springboks later this year.
He is quick to point out, however, the tourists can only build their game around rapidly shifting the points of contact if they front up against a hulking but relentless Springbok pack. “That is spot-on but you still need to win the ball up front. You can’t get away from that,” Botha said.
Perhaps the manner in which the Boks dismantled England’s much-vaunted pack in the last Rugby World Cup final helped shape Lions’ coach Warren Gatland’s battle plans. That was the Boks’ last Test and Gatland will be forgiven if that is the lasting memory he has of the marauding South Africans.
Still, Botha (1980), along with Naka Drotske (1997) and John Smit (2009) who featured individually against the last three Lions’ sides to tour here, are stunned by the hard-hitting Vunipola’s absence.
“Gatland obviously has an idea about what he wants to do with the team. I like what he said about selection: ‘It is a matter of opinion.’ Sometimes it has nothing to do with talent but the thought process a coach is following,” said Botha.
“Every Lions coach will have his own ideas and blueprint and it’s difficult to figure out what pattern Gatland is likely to play,” Drotske added, saying he would have had Vunipola in his selection.
Smit, though surprised by Vunipola’s exclusion, points to the qualities of discarded England No 8 Sam Simmonds, who cracked the nod in Gatland’s group. “He’s the Exeter loosie and he’s been outstanding. He’s been a bit of a beast. He’s a really good player.”
England tighthead Kyle Sinckler, who played just three minutes of the Rugby World Cup final, is another who will miss a peculiar tour sans safari bulging in bio bubble.
“They know we pose huge danger in the scrums,” said Drotske. “We showed that in the last World Cup final. They are only too aware scrums will play a huge role.” Botha also noted with surprise CJ Stander’s exclusion before explaining: “He retired for Ireland and that probably bit him in the back.”
Though expected because of lingering concussion symptoms, Jonny Sexton’s non
‘Warren Gatland obviously has an idea about what he wants to do with the team’
selection raised a Botha eyebrow. “They’ll miss him but Dan Biggar had a good series (Six Nations). And to be fair, Sexton is almost more off the field than on. I would have left out Finn Russell if Sexton was fit.”
Of course Owen Farrell can also be deployed at 10 but Botha believes the Lions “are thin” in the centres.
He was shocked at Elliot Daly’s inclusion until reminded of the utility back’s potency off the kicking tee from long range.
Drotske underlined the importance of reliable goalkickers. In 1997 the Lions won the first Test thanks in part to Neil Jenkins’ superb goalkicking. “In the second Test we scored three tries to nil and still lost because of their superior goalkicking. We won the last Test and could have won that series,” Drotske ruefully recalled.
As for the Lions’ captaincy, Botha believes Alun Wyn Jones towers above the other contenders. “Watching the Six Nations I came to the conclusion he is a totally unique person. He doesn’t miss a tackle. Have a look in the last 10 minutes when things get tough. He doesn’t disappear or stand back. He’s been around, 157 Tests for a forward. He’s a fantastic leader.”