Several members of England’s record-equalling side under Eddie Jones are expected to be disappointed on Wednesday when Warren Gatland announces at noon his British & Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand. Almost half the starting XV who faced Ireland on the final weekend of the Six Nations last month are struggling to make the cut with Dylan Hartley, the captain, among those holding out for a last-gasp reprieve.
Established England players such as George Ford, Mike Brown, Jonathan Joseph, Joe Launchbury, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw are also in danger of being squeezed out when the squad are unveiled, with Wales’s Sam Warburton in line to be the Lions captain for the second successive tour. Among the other England Six Nations winners looking likelier to tour Argentina under Jones instead are Danny Care, Jonny May, Nathan Hughes and Jack Nowell.
Gatland clearly feels a different approach will be required to defeat New Zealand on home soil and England’s defeat against Ireland in Dublin did not enhance the chances of some contenders. The selectors were still deliberating over the last couple of positions late into the afternoon, among them the merits of Hartley versus Wales’s Ken Owens whom Gatland knows well.
With Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree appointed to coach the Lions forwards, the 31-year-old Northampton hooker retains some influential support and is desperately keen to tour his native New Zealand having missed the previous Lions tour to Australia in 2013 through suspension. On the flip side he has been banned for on-field clashes with three potential tourists – Jamie George, Rory Best and Sean O’Brien – and Owens was arguably the form hooker of the Six Nations.
Gatland, however, has made no secret of his desire to pick resilient, strong-minded players and Hartley’s influential leadership during England’s record-equalling sequence of 18 Test victories cannot be entirely overlooked. If for any reason Munster’s Peter O’Mahony is not available, the midweek team will require a strong voice and Hartley’s disciplinary problems have generally occurred at club level.
Last time around in 2013 England had 14 representatives while Wales contributed 16 and Ireland 12. The former New Zealand and Lions coach Graham Henry has warned that Gatland’s squad will be up against it from the start. “I just wonder if the itinerary is suicidal,” Henry told ESPN. “You need to ensure some momentum is created by results and you just wonder how they are going to go into the test series with that itinerary. It is very demanding.” The Lions open their tour in Whangarei on 3 June against a Provincial Barbarians XV.