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Andy Farrell under no obligation to pick 2025 Lions squad from all four nations

British and Irish Lions head coach Andy FarrelLions will not force Andy Farrell to select from all four nations – and will allow France-based players
Andy Farrell is due to take up his position as Lions head coach on December 1 - David Rogers/Getty Images

Andy Farrell will be given freedom to pick any player or coach he wants for the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia next summer, after the head coach was told he will not be constrained by any pressure to ensure that all four nations are represented, Telegraph Sport can reveal.

Farrell has also been given licence to select eligible players who are based in France, whose growing number include his son Owen, the former England captain, Courtney Lawes, Jack Willis and Kyle Sinckler, even if it means they will not be available for the start of the nine-game tour because of Top 14 commitments – or they are not current international players.

It is thought to be the first time a Lions coach has been given complete freedom to select any player he wants. Before the first professional tour in 1997, squad selection involved representatives from each of the four home unions and a policy of horse-trading was common. Even Warren Gatland, head coach for the last three tours, felt a responsibility, implied or otherwise, to ensure that all four nations were represented in some way in both his squad composition and coaching staff.

On current form, that would see the Lions squad dominated by Ireland and England players with Wales, who have so often been strongly represented on tours, struggling for any representatives.

“It will be absolutely merit-based, this is about being the ‘best of the best’ and we have to fiercely protect that,” Ben Calveley, the Lions chief executive, told Telegraph Sport. “Things like quotas would not be in line with that mentality.

“Squad selection is entirely down to Andy and his assistant coaches. He has a completely free hand to select the players that he thinks will give us the best chance of being successful down in Australia. There are no restrictions at all. It is right down to Andy. If he thinks a player will make a difference, he can bring them in.”

Farrell was defence coach under Warren Gatland for the 2013 series win in Australia and drawn series in New Zealand four years later

Calveley confirmed that those eligible players based in France next season, which also includes Billy and Mako Vunipola, Blair Kinghorn, Lewis Ludlam, David Ribbans, Joe Marchant and Henry Arundell, will not be handicapped by their Top 14 commitments – the French league is not due to finish before the Lions depart for Australia.

“If you look at prep time, one of the things I am most pleased about is the partnership that we’ve agreed with Premiership Rugby and the URC that means we will have more time with the players than we’ve had for a long time.

“We have the ability to have that fixture against Argentina in Dublin which helps us prepare and get ready for going down to Australia. And when you look down at the whole number of fixtures, we’ve got 10, and six of them happen before the first Test and eight of them happen before the second Test. So there’s opportunities for Andy to be trialling combinations and all the things that he needs to do to build that cohesion before you get to the real sharp end of the tour.

“We have often had players who come into the tour from France. We had Finn Russell, who was at Racing 92, join the tour to South Africa in 2021. As of today we have a schedule and access to players that I think is better than it has been in the past and are maximising Andy’s chance of being successful. What I don’t know is how many of our players will be based where.”

Complete freedom of choices also applies to coaching staff

Farrell is due to take up his position on December 1, with Simon Easterby set to take over as interim Ireland head coach. Farrell is expected to appoint his coaching team and backroom staff before the start of the Six Nations in February next year.

As Telegraph Sport revealed in January, the appointments will not include Steve Borthwick, who has ruled himself out of contention to focus on his England commitments but could include attack coach Richard Wigglesworth or defence coach Felix Jones.

Significantly Farrell will also not face any constraints in terms of the make-up of his selection or whether they are based overseas, which could bring into contention coaches like Shaun Edwards, his former team-mate with rugby league’s Wigan Warriors, who is currently working as France’s defence coach.

“Again there will be no restrictions at all,” Calveley added. “We are trying to provide for the players an environment that maximises their chances of being successful. They get selected because they are the best of the best and they deserve to have all of the support personnel in place who are also the best of the best. That’s the focus for us, getting a team in place on the field and off the field that gives us the very best chance of being successful.

“Now, all of that said, of course, this is the British and Irish Lions and so you do want there to be a flavour of the different unions and if you look back over the past tours, it’s generally been the case that that’s how things end up, but I don’t think you need any sort of principles to be imposed from above for that to happen because there’s real strength in all of the countries that make up the Lions. That just happens organically, but it is very much about protecting merit-based selections.”

Twice the number of travelling fans compared to 2013

It is almost a year to the day that the Lions are due to open their tour with a game against Western Force in Perth and Calveley revealed that ticket sales and travel packages have already broken all previous records.

“We could have sold our pre-tour fixture against Argentina in Dublin five times over and we’ve got more people travelling with us down to Australia than we have ever had and we still have a year to go,” Calveley added.

“As of today, we have more than twice the number of fans who came with us on the last tour in 2013. To give you an idea of how big this [travel] programme is, 20 per cent of all hotels in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney are booked in the name of the Lions.

“When Rugby Australia released their tickets, they were all hoovered up within minutes, not just the Test matches but all of the non-Test fixtures as well so we should be looking at a record crowd for a Lions tour in Australia.”

Calveley said that he has currently engaged in negotiations with his Australian counterpart Phil Waugh about finding new opposition for the match which had been scheduled against the Melbourne Rebels between the first and second Tests, after the Rebels were shut down in the wake of entering financial administration.

“It is well documented what has happened there, we have got a very close relationship with Rugby Australia and Phil Waugh and his team. They are now considering alternatives. There is an absolute firm commitment that there will be a fixture that will replace the Rebels and will happen in Melbourne on the date that was originally intended. Andy and I will have our views on the opposition and will have a discussion with Phil and between us come up with an opposition we think is right for that point of the tour. We will be pushing for the discussions to be concluded as soon as possible.”