The rumours are over and the squad is complete. Warren Gatland announced his 41-man British and Irish Lions squad on Wednesday and, as usual, sprung a few surprises to keep everyone on their toes ahead of the tour of New Zealand.
After being written off completely, Jonathan Joseph’s name appeared among the lucky chosen ones, while Wales No 8 Ross Moriarty was another surprising inclusion among a list of 22 forwards. Scotland wing Tommy Seymour is one of five out-and-out wings heading on the tour, while Irish back Jared Payne will offer versatility to Gatland with the Ulster man, who is capable of playing at centre of full-back, bagging himself on the plane.
The Lions squad is one of the most fiercely debated selections in sport given it sees four international squads come together for one of the most cherished events in the world, and this year’s contingent is broken down into 16 Englishmen, 12 Welshmen, 11 Irishmen and just two Scotsmen.
So has Gatland got his selection right? Only time will tell when the Lions face the All Blacks on 24 June, 1 July and 8 July in a three-test series, but here we break down the big decisions and give our verdict on whether they’re right or wrong.
Jonathan Joseph – Hours before Joseph was named in the squad, the vast majority believed that Jamie Roberts, the two-tour Lions veteran, was in line for a shock inclusion at Joseph’s expense. The England centre has been a mainstay during Eddie Jones’s resurrection of the national team, and he provided a timely reminder of his attacking potential with a hat-trick of tries during England’s crushing victory over Scotland during the Six Nations. Had he been omitted from the squad, Gatland would have been ruling out one of the most attacking centres the Lions have at their disposal, and his ability to create something out of nothing should ensure he provides some memorable moments in New Zealand.
Sam Warburton – His selection was never in doubt, but naming Warburton as captain for the second time looks to be the right call. Warburton has rarely ever let Gatland down, having been the man to lead Wales to two Six Nations titles under the Kiwi’s stewardship, and he was a fantastic skipper four years ago despite being ruled out of the final Test. Warburton can also take his form from the Six Nations into the tour with him, and with doubts surfacing over Alun Wyn Jones’s leadership skills as Wales finished the Six Nations in fifth, Gatland has gone with what he knows best.
Jamie George – The England hooker may not have started a Test for England yet, but he’s been the form hooker in the Aviva Premiership for the past two years and more than deserves his shot at New Zealand, having not yet faced the All Blacks. It’s tough on Dylan Hartley, and the England captain’s experience and leadership skills would have come in handy in New Zealand – not to mention his accuracy at the set-piece – but George is deserving of his spot in the squad and with Rory Best and Ken Owens out-performing Hartley during the Six Nations, Gatland has gone with the bold but correct decision.
Ross Moriarty – Moriarty may have had the form to keep Taulupe Faletau out of the Wales starting XV during the Six Nations, but the Bath forward was battling back from injury and would surely have reclaimed his No 8 jersey had he been fully fit. Faletau has displayed that he still remains one of the top No 8s in the world since returning to Bath, and with Billy Vunipola also in the squad plus blindside flanker CJ Stander equally adept at No 8, Moriarty may find himself a spare wheel during the second half of the tour.
Donnacha Ryan – The Irish lock is desperately unlucky at missing out on the squad after his superb showing in Dublin last month against England and, at 33 years old, his last shot at the Lions looks to be over. Of course, there’s the prospect of an injury-replacement call-up, but having the talented Irish lock would have added a wealth of experience to a second-row department that Alun Wyn Jones-aside looks a tad short on knowing what it takes to win on the biggest stage.
Jared Payne – This one also came out of the blue, and while Payne will add an alternative option at outside centre along with cover at full-back, the decision to bring him in is a peculiar one. Payne missed the start of the Six Nations through injury and while he impressed on his return, none more so than against England, the other options in the squad mean that Gatland could have strengthened elsewhere. With Jonathan Davies, Ben Te’o and Elliot Daly able to play 13, Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams able to fill in at full-back and plenty of wings, another option at 12 may have been more suitable such as a Scott Williams, or more likely taking Garry Ringrose after his virtuoso Six Nations.