There can be a slight sense of anticlimax in the immediate aftermath of a British & Ireland Lions squad announcement. Not every deserving individual gets picked, not every country feels fairly represented and the brutal realities of the schedule, particularly this summer, are not easily ignored. It generally takes a while for everyone to calm down and appreciate precisely what the selectors are seeking to achieve.
In the case of the 2017 Lions, ultimately, it is less the shortage of Scots that leaps out than the bristling bundle of competitive energy heading New Zealand’s way. This is not a squad picked for some vague trip to a generic location but specifically with the world champions’ backyard in mind. Warren Gatland is a Kiwi himself and not one of the 41 seats on the plane south will be filled by a player who dissolves at the first hint of pressure.
The forwards, in particular, are an impressive blend of Celtic thunder and Anglo-Saxon power, the left-field bolters have been artfully chosen and the goalkickers, collectively, are the most accurate bunch of sharpshooters since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The decision to take some extra players in the event of injuries, rather than fly in ill-prepared replacements, is sensible and the captain is universally popular. If this party was heading anywhere other than New Zealand, they would be firm favourites to do the business.
That, of course, is what makes this particular challenge so irresistible. The All Blacks have won their past 36 Tests at Eden Park, where two-thirds of the series will take place, and have not lost there in the professional era. The last time the Lions went down there in 2005 they were savagely sliced and diced. If you play rugby in the northern hemisphere and want to be remembered as someone truly special, this is the tour to win.
With the bookmaker William Hill quoting New Zealand at 5-4 on to win the series 3-0 and the famous 1971 tour now dipped in sepia, the odds are not encouraging. But when Mako Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau, George Kruis, Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric and Iain Henderson are struggling to make your Saturday pack, there are cautious reasons for optimism and the assistant coach Graham Rowntree also feels that Ross Moriarty, the least expected inclusion along with the Ulster utility back Jared Payne, has an “energy and hunger” that will impress both team-mates and opponents.
If it is a pity no room has been found for the up-and-coming Garry Ringrose, Gatland has also opted for an abrasiveness and positive attitude behind the scrum. Payne, who along with Ben Te’o is a Kiwi by birth and was once released by Gatland during his Waikato days, has been included for his local knowledge, spatial awareness and experience of beating the All Blacks in an Irish jersey in Chicago last autumn, while Jonathan Joseph’s late inclusion was down to Gatland’s gut feeling. “I said to the rest of the coaches that we can’t leave Jonathan Joseph out,” he said. “From a Welsh perspective he’s the one player that causes us so many problems when we play England. It’s his footwork and pace and some other midfielders in other teams don’t have the same stuff.”
Gatland is also keenly aware of the psychological resilience needed to succeed in the world’s most demanding rugby playground, where the lady in the milk bar often knows as much about rucking technique as some European coaches. “I think a lot of people in the past who have been there haven’t been prepared well enough,” said Gatland, recommending first-time visitors watch films such as Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Whale Rider or Boy to “understand our enemy a bit better” prior to arrival. “It’s a really tough place to go and tour. The intensity, the knowledge of the nation … it’s not going to be like Australia in 2013 when we arrived in Melbourne and people were saying: ‘Who are the people wearing red jerseys?’”
That, unfortunately, is what some north of Hadrian’s Wall will be asking with only Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour making the party – compared with 23 from Ireland and Wales – despite Scotland having beaten both their Celtic rivals this year. The heavy Calcutta Cup defeat at Twickenham spoiled an awful lot of ballot papers, with winning on the road still Gatland’s acid test. “We are playing away from home and Scotland haven’t been to New Zealand since 2000. We have to perform away from home, that’s going to be paramount.”
The failure of England and Wasps to win in Dublin recently has also done for Joe Launchbury but welcome opportunity does knock for four young Englishmen – Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George and Elliot Daly – ahead of a host of other candidates. They will find themselves being captained by the most modest of leaders, with Sam Warburton initially suspecting his Cardiff Blues’ team-mate Tom James had stolen his phone and swapped Gatland’s mobile number for his own. “When it rang and I didn’t hear anything, I just hung up because I thought it was TJ messing around. Then it rang again and I heard Gats’ Kiwi accent.”
The upshot is that Warburton will join Martin Johnson as the only person to captain the Lions on successive tours.
The 28-year-old flanker planned to celebrate by ordering a curry last night and is confident his knee injury will heal in time for the tour. He is rather less optimistic about the squad bonding over a few leisurely beers – “Looking at the fixture schedule I don’t think there is going to be time” - but otherwise Gatland’s Lions have most bases covered. All they now require is some luck with injuries, a shared sense of belief and, according to Rowntree, plenty of grit. “It’s an attritional place to go and play. I think we’ve learned the type of character you need in abundance to try and win in New Zealand. We’ve picked a lot of warriors to go down there.”
In terms of their understanding of the rigorous mental challenge ahead, this Lions side are as well prepared as any.