Warren Gatland insisted this weekend that his first task is not to choose his British and Irish Lions captain, but to pick the full squad that will be named on Wednesday at midday. The head coach, who leads his second successive Lions tour, this time to New Zealand after 2013’s successful venture to Australia, knows exactly how hard the job is, but also the way to handle all the questions that are thrown at him from all four nations that make up the Lions.
So what are those questions? The squad and captaincy are certainly the most obvious, but are they the most important? What about the make up off the squad – will too many Englishmen reduce the collective spirit of the Lions, will not enough negate their world record-equalling 18-match winning streak, or will a lack of Scotsmen lessen the attacking threat that they have shown over the last year – and whether he will choose a midweek captain or rotate the responsibility among a core group of senior players?
These are just a handful of questions that Gatland will face this week, and here we explain why they will be so crucial to securing just a second series victory against the All Blacks in the history of Lions.
Who makes the squad?
The obvious one that will be answered when Gatland names an expected 37-man squad on Wednesday. The New Zealander will have known the bulk of his touring party for quite some time, with the Six Nations playing a large part in deciding if those heading to the Southern Hemisphere this summer are Lions tourists or just tourists.
Who will be captain?
Being named Lions captain is an honour bestowed on the very best of international rugby, with the recent names of Sam Warburton, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Martin Johnson displaying the calibre of player required to lead the squad. Gatland has plenty of options to choose from, with current international captains Alun Wyn Jones and Rory Best tipped for a place in the squad and England skipper Dylan Hartley facing an uncertain wait to see if he makes the cut. The chosen one will need to lead by example and ensure that, no matter what Gatland or others may say, that the captain is the first name on the teamsheet. Given how crucial the squad leaders have proven over the history of the Lions, having a captain not worthy of his place in the squad simply isn’t acceptable.
Will there be a midweek side and captain?
Some coaches have chosen to deploy very separate Test and midweek sides in order to help players build relationships over the seven-week tour, but that hasn’t always been a recipe for success as Sir Clive Woodward’s 2005 tour to New Zealand showed. Last time in Australia, Gatland rotated his team selection as he saw fit, with something similar to his Test side being deployed in games two and five. That would mean sending his first XV out against the Blues and the Maori All Blacks, though it is the game against the Crusaders in week three that may prove the most difficult with the Canterbury side currently leading the way in Super Rugby.
That also brings up the prospect of a midweek captain, something Gatland has spoken about previously with his preference for a past tourist leading the side. With Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, the two leading candidates to captain the squad, expected to be named in the Test XV, that leaves the midweek role to someone else. Four years ago, Gatland was able to call on O’Driscoll, O’Connell and Best, and it could fall to the Irish hooker once again, along with an experienced tourist such as Wales No 8 Taulupe Faletau, to take on that role this time around.
How many fly-halves will he take?
Gatland has plenty of options here. The first is to stick with the common approach of taking three fly-halves, which would likely see Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell joined by one of George Ford, Dan Biggar or Finn Russell. The second, more risky choice, could be to take just Sexton and Farrell as recognised 10s, with full-back Stuart Hogg providing the cover if needed at stand-off. However, that’s what Gatland chose to do in 2013, and the only game that the Lions lost came when Hogg lined up against the Brumbies at fly-half. However, by taking one fewer fly-half, Gatland opens up his options in over areas where the addition of an extra player can help boost his options to conquer the All Blacks where strength in depth is needed. The only complication is that with Farrell expected to start at centre alongside Sexton, the options to cover the fly-half role begin to look a little thin.