Have England lost their majority vote on the Lions trip to New Zealand?
What a difference one week makes. Had the British & Irish Lions squad to New Zealand been selected after the demolition of Scotland at Twickenham, as many as 19 or 20 English players might have made it.
After the last round loss to Ireland, England may no longer be certain of winning that overall majority in Warren Gatland’s 37-man tour party. The Ireland match (which England lost 13-9) had the effect of reinforcing England’s struggles against the middle-ranking sides in this year’s Six Nations, rather than accenting the dominant image portrayed by the Scotland game.
England won the games against France, Wales and Ireland by a combined margin of 44 points to 41, while both scoring and conceding three tries. Rightly or wrongly, it is these games which may ultimately count for more in selection than either England’s victory over Scotland, or even their outstanding 18-match string of success since Eddie Jones took over the reins as head coach.
That is the impact of momentum. However high your ascent takes you – and it has taken England to a clear ranking of number two in the world, within touching distance of the All Blacks – when the momentum of development begins to grind to a halt, it presents a problem.
That is the dilemma which now belongs to Warren Gatland, all the way up until the Lions’ announcement on April 19. England are the best in the Northern Hemisphere, but their progress has run up against some typical second season resistance.
How does Gatland weigh England’s winning run in 2016 with Ireland’s ability to beat the very best (including New Zealand) in one-off contests? How does he factor in his long-standing familiarity with Welsh players on such short and brutal tour? How does he assess Scotland’s improvement (and hence their representation in New Zealand) in the light of the Twickenham rout?
I believe he will stand selection on what he knows to be facts – his in-depth knowledge of the Welsh players he has coached for almost ten years, Ireland’s success against the All Blacks in Chicago, and the incredibly short time-frame for preparation between the Pro 12 and EPL finals on 27 May and the first tour game on 3 June. England selections will have to fit in around those influences.
This is the squad I believe Warren Gatland would select if the squad was announced this week (first Test starters asterisked).
W.P.NEL (if fit)
Alun-Wyn JONES* (capt)
This would give a split of 11 England, 11 Ireland, 11 Wales and four Scotland players. In the team for the first Test, there would be a representation of six Welsh, five Irish, three English and one player from Scotland. If Willem Nel isn’t fit for the tour, I would expect Leicester’s Dan Cole to be selected as the second tight-head, bringing the English contingent up to 12.
There are some other grey areas which could boost the English presence, such as Joe Marler for Cian Healy as one of the props, Courtney Lawes for Iain Henderson in the second row, Chris Robshaw or James Haskell for Justin Tipuric in the back-row, and Jack Nowell for Tim Visser on the wing.
But ultimately, the composition of the tour party may well reflect the closeness of the majority of games in the Six Nations rather more than it does England’s long unbeaten run.
I believe that there are one or two Welsh players – such as Jamie Roberts and Taulupe Faletau – who are not first choice for their country at present but may be towed along into the tour party as a result of Gatland’s familiarity with both their play and their character.
Lions’ icon Ian McGeechan has often spoken about
• The critical importance of getting the right support from the squad players on Lions tours – from those who will not necessarily play in a Test match but will be expected to give their all to the trip as back-up players, encouraging and even mentoring the starters while contributing heavily to the ‘social and community’ aspect of Lions touring:
“We have been in the incredibly fortunate position where we can contribute to communities, helping to provide facilities and engage young people in sport. These projects have nothing to do with rugby but they have everything to do with wearing the Lions badge…The social bit is important. When 90 per cent of the tour is off the field that will impact on where we can get to as a group of people.”
• The need for continuity in selection between Lions’ tours. Old hands in the coaching group, like Rob Howley, Neil Jenkins and Graham Rowntree, who were all on both the 2009 tour to South Africa and the 2013 trip to Australia, will again join forces with Andy Farrell (2013) to form an experienced group who all know each other well. I think that Roberts will probably get the nod for much the same reason in the playing group. There is an instinctive understanding growing out of experiences dating back to 2009 of the behaviours that will make the Lions competitive in New Zealand.
This will be Warren Gatland’s third tour with the British and Irish Lions. He will know better than anyone what it takes to enable a playing group from four different nations to gel in such a short time-frame. As a Kiwi he will also be well aware of the extraordinary combination of positive factors required to come away with a series win in New Zealand.
The composition of the Lions tour squad, especially at the ‘back end’ may not be quite as expected as a result, and there not be as many Englishmen in it as most would have thought after their amazing recent run of success.