As he exited the press conference, Warren Gatland gave a little wink to the assembled press corps. “Nice try, lads,” he quipped. For all the second guessing, Gatland still had a couple of rabbits up his sleeve in his expanded 41-man squad that no one saw coming.
The selections of Jared Payne and Ross Moriarty demonstrate that the Lions coach is a very hard man to second guess. While everyone thought there would be a return to “Warrenball”, the presence of Jonathan Joseph, Elliot Daly and Payne shows that he intends on keeping his armoury fully stocked. Hopefully, there will be a couple more curveballs heading the All Blacks’ way.
As much as Gatland traditionally favours power in his backs, Payne is a natural footballing option able to cover the centres and full back. He missed three months with a kidney injury but returned for Ireland in the final match against England where after a couple of spilt high balls, he quickly started pulling the strings. That performance alone may have confirmed his selection.
Moriarty fits far more snuggly into the Gatland mould far as a back-row destroyer. Against England, the Gloucester and Wales flanker was sensational rattling the very fabric of the Principality Stadium with his tackles before he was withdrawn early in the second half to the widespread bewilderment of most Welsh supporters. Moriarty did not return to those heights for the rest of the campaign, even if he kept Taulupe Faletau on the bench which is no mean feat.
Certainly the reading of the tea leaves that had Jamie Roberts in ahead of Jonathan Joseph proved to be ill-founded – or at least premature – and may have averted a lynch mob forming on social media. That at least proves that form counts for something in the Lions reckoning.
Scots will cry foul that two players – Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour – does not do justice to their Six Nations victories against Ireland and Wales, who each have double-figure representations. It would be a real shame if Scottish supporters come to feel disenfranchised by the Lions but in fairness there was no real standout omission. Jonny Gray and Finn Russell are both unlucky but no more so than say Joe Launchbury and George Ford. Had he been fit then tighthead prop WP Nel would surely have been included.
In fact the greatest issue may well prove to be the size of the squad at 41. Gatland will hope that means he does not need to send for reinforcements, who take time to come up to acclimatise, given the inevitable attrition rate on the tour. The disadvantage is a disconnect between the Test team and the dirt-trackers, which was a prime problem when Sir Clive Woodward took 45 to New Zealand last time in 2005. It took the best part of two tours for that band of brothers feels to be rebuilt and far more than the raw talent it will be upon that foundation that the tour’s success depends.