Lions goalkicking can give us the edge in New Zealand, says Warren Gatland

Gerard Meagher
The Guardian
Lions goalkicking can give us the edge in New Zealand, says Warren Gatland
Lions goalkicking can give us the edge in New Zealand, says Warren Gatland

Warren Gatland believes superior goalkicking can catapult the British & Irish Lions to a first series win against New Zealand since 1971. After selecting an extended squad of 41, with the Wales back-row Ross Moriarty and the Ireland centre Jared Payne among the surprise inclusions, Gatland also claimed he has picked a touring party with the firepower to match the All Blacks up front.

With Gatland confirming Owen Farrell has been picked as fly-half, along with Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar of Wales, the Lions head coach has packed his squad with goalkickers – Leigh Halfpenny, the player of the series four years ago, has also been selected along with England’s Elliot Daly, who possesses a thunderous left boot.

New Zealand on the other hand have Beauden Barrett at fly-half, who for all his qualities with ball in hand can be indifferent from the tee. “Looking at the squad, the point of difference is maybe our goalkicking, I think we’ve got four or five of the world’s best goalkickers going with us and if we’re going to have an edge somewhere it could be in that area,” said Gatland. “Beauden Barrett is not kicking at the moment, his brother is for the Hurricanes and it may be the difference.”

Moriarty is one of 12 Wales players picked – England boast the most with 16 – and typifies a squad chosen for its abrasive edge. It explains why Joe Launchbury has been overlooked and Courtney Lawes chosen and why the second-row Iain Henderson is among 11 players from Ireland selected.

England’s captain, Dylan Hartley, was overlooked but of the 14 tight-five players selected, eight are from Eddie Jones’s side: the props Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole and Kyle Sinckler, the hooker Jamie George and the second-rows Maro Itoje, who is the youngest member of the squad, Lawes and George Kruis.

“You’re trying to find areas where you’re going to have an advantage and New Zealand always feel that their difference between the rest of the world is their tight five and their ability of the tight five in terms of ball handling,” added Gatland. “We feel we’ve got a tight five that can match them, we feel we’ve got a tight five who are going to be excellent at the set-piece in terms of scrums and lineouts, but also have got the ability to get around the park and have got some good hands and strong ball-carrying ability as well.”

In total there are 16 players who toured Australia in 2013, including Halfpenny and Sam Warburton, who becomes only the second man to be named as captain for two tours after Martin Johnson in 1997 and 2001. There are also three players born in New Zealand – Ben Te’o, Mako Vunipola and Payne – while Alun Wyn Jones and Halfpenny are on their third tours.

Only two Scots have been selected – Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour – with the Gray brothers feeling the pinch of the congestion in the second-row and the fly-half Finn Russell also overlooked. Gatland confirmed that Scotland’s poor showing against England in the Six Nations, as well as Glasgow’s heavy Champions Cup defeat by Saracens counted against them.

“Take the nationality out of it, let’s put all the players in contention in the positions and discuss that,” said Gatland. “Go through the pros and cons of the players and forget about nationality. Look, we understand they are going to be disappointed but it wasn’t about what nation you come from. We put together what we thought was the strongest possible squad.”

Conor Murray is among the three scrum-halves selected and is widely expected to be first choice but he has not played since Ireland’s Six Nations defeat by Wales due to a neck injury. Gatland confirmed he would not travel if he has not returned before the squad depart on 29 May. “It is a concern. He’s got a nerve issue. I spoke to the doctor yesterday,” added Gatland. “He was hoping to be fit this week. He had a setback a couple of weeks ago. He’s going to need to play before he gets on the plane. That’s going to be important for us. I would be reluctant to take someone to New Zealand with a neck injury who hasn’t played particularly.”

Despite rumours to the contrary, the England centre Jonathan Joseph has been selected while Jamie Roberts has not, with Gatland confirming the Welshman was never part of his plans. Mike Brown, George Ford, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose and James Haskell are among the other notable absentees.

In selecting 41 players rather than the initial plan of 37 – at an estimated additional cost of more than £500,000 – however, Gatland has picked just three players fewer than on the last New Zealand tour in 2005, when Clive Woodward was widely criticised for taking a bloated squad. “There’s no doubt that this is the toughest tour that the Lions had ever undertaken in terms of how tough the midweek games are,” said Gatland. “If we do pick up injuries then we’ve potentially got cover there with guys that have already been there. We thought that was quite powerful.”

Full Lions squad

Backs: Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben T’eo (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)

Forwards: Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales, capt).

Philosophical Hartley focuses on Pumas

Dylan Hartley has been tipped to bounce back from his Lions snub in Argentina this summer after Warren Gatland revealed that he lost out to his England understudy Jamie George.

Hartley is the fourth England captain of the professional era to be overlooked by the Lions with Chris Robshaw missing out four years ago, Steve Borthwick – one of Gatland’s assistants – ignored in 2009 and Phil de Glanville omitted in 1997.

The New Zealand-born hooker has led England for all 18 matches of Eddie Jones’s reign – while George is yet to start an international Test – but Hartley, who was selected four years ago then suspended and subsequently left at home, was philosophical. He tweeted “work to be done in Argentina” along with the Hebrew word firgun, which translates as genuine, unselfish delight or pride in the accomplishment of others.

“Dylan has done a great job for England since he has captained the team,” said Gatland. “There’s no doubt of that or his leadership qualities. At the end of the day we felt we couldn’t leave Jamie out. It’s probably not the best thing to be an England captain in a Lions year.”

Hartley is now set to be named in Jones’s squad to tour Argentina on Thursday despite some suggestions he would benefit from the summer off. “Knowing the resilient character Dylan is, he’ll be determined to be on the pitch as much as possible,” said Borthwick.

Hartley is likely to be joined on the Argentina tour by Joe Launchbury, who missed out along with the Gray brothers and Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan in the second row. “It’s very hard to understand how [he] isn’t on that plane and very hard to understand what more he could have done,” said Launchbury’s “mystified” Wasps director of rugby, Dai Young. “I’m gutted for him and scratching my head a little bit, because I would have thought he was one that was nailed on.”

Gatland confirmed Launchbury missedlost out to his England team-mate Courtney Lawes and with neither Gray picked and only Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour selected, Scotland have paid the price for not being represented among the selectors, according to their former Lions hooker Gordon Bulloch. This will be the first tour since 1908 that Scotland have no representation in the forwards and Bulloch said: “If we maybe had a bit more influence we could have had four or five players.” Gatland, who tried and failed to recruit both Gregor Townsend – who becomes Scotland coach in the summer – and their attack coach, Jason O’Halloran, to his staff rejected that claim.

With Jonathan Joseph joining Jared Payne in the centre, Ireland’s Gary Ringrose also misses out. “[Lions assistant coach] Andy Farrell thinks that in six months’ time, he’s someone that’s going to be incredibly special,” conceded Gatland.

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