In time honoured fashion, the media tried its best to create some drama out of the Lions squad announcement. But in truth, the squad near enough picked itself. Following a Six Nations which threw up so little quality, the known strengths of key players were always like to be the deciding factor. They mostly emanate from Wales and Ireland, some of whom toured South Africa in 2009 and will still be hurting after the series defeat.
One or two selections did catch the eye. Maku Vunipola has had a sensational season, with handling skills to match a three-quarter as well as a real physical presence. He could become one of the all time greats, whilst the selection of Matt Stevens has a tinge of the romantic attached.
Outside his mobility, passing skill and ability on either side of the scrum, he is highly regarded off field and will fit the Lions ethos perfectly. His successful return from a two year suspension is one of Rugby and team sports great moments.
Another big talking point was the selection of only two fly-halves. However, it seemed as if it was an excuse to put forward the merits of Jonny Wilkinson. I may upset some misty- eyed fans, but his best rugby was a while ago, notwithstanding his dead ball kicking exploits and occasional hard tackle.
Gatland has been super-smart, entertaining the possibility of Jonny touring at some point but not really wanting him as a midweek fly-half .The Lions midweek team will want to play to their absolute limits, and frankly to accommodate Wilkinson these days you have to form your strategy around him, playing big men on limited charges and standing him in the pocket. Johnny Sexton is by far the best 10 in the Northern Hemisphere, and the mere mention of Wilko is a sad reflection on the lack of talent elsewhere.
Back row selections are the last real bone of contention with the omission of Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw, both fine players. Of course there was very stiff competition, as there always is for these positions. The problem for Wood and Robshaw, and the same applies to an extent to England’s back three and midfield, is that England has become something of a ‘collective’ under Lancaster.
What I mean by that is that they have suppressed their individuality for the team cause. That can quite possibly be a good thing for England, we shall see, but when looking for something special and Lion-like, you come up short. On balance though, I think Gatland is justified, and I certainly think that Leicester’s Tom Croft will be a Lions starter – his lineout jumping is unmatched, and his pacey running is highly impressive.
Hence, in some quarters, people think that England may have only one starter in a Lions shirt, that being Croft. The conservatism of the national team and some Premiership sides will not have helped. This also may say something for the age and experience levels of many England players, and the longer term success of the Welsh and Irish players who dominate selection.
Whatever one’s opinion, Gatland will carry the confidence of four nations. The Australians, despite superior levels of skill especially in the backs, will be very wary of the Lions great physical strength, and I expect there to be power plays all across the park, as Gatland knows that’s a battle he can win and will form the platform he wants to have in order to win the series.
Has Lancaster’s England project been detrimental to the Lions hopes of his players? Comments below…