Warren Gatland refines search for bearers of Lions pride | Robert Kitson

Robert Kitson
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Owen Farrell, left, Jonny Sexton, right, and Maro Itoje, centre, are firmly tipped to be in Warren Gatland’s squad to tour New Zealand while Peter O’Mahony, top, and Greig Laidlaw, bottom, also have strong claims.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Composite: RFU/Getty, Sportsfile/Getty, Reuters, PA</span>
Owen Farrell, left, Jonny Sexton, right, and Maro Itoje, centre, are firmly tipped to be in Warren Gatland’s squad to tour New Zealand while Peter O’Mahony, top, and Greig Laidlaw, bottom, also have strong claims. Composite: RFU/Getty, Sportsfile/Getty, Reuters, PA

Picking the best British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand has long been a fraught job. In 1993, as now, England had just lost to Ireland in Dublin on the final weekend and the selectors were required to gather the following day. “We spent the next eight hours arguing,” recalls the then assistant coach Dick Best. “At one stage we had 21 England players on the tour but because we’d lost to Ireland it got whittled down to 17. Afterwards Ian McGeechan said: ‘I’m not going again unless I can select the team.’”

These days, following McGeechan’s firm recommendation, there is slightly more time for the Six Nations dust to settle. Warren Gatland does not have to declare his hand until 19 April but the mission remains as formidable as ever. It always pays to remember, before giving the old selectorial tombola its four-yearly spin, that the Lions have been touring New Zealand since 1888 and have won only one series, in 1971. Making this a lucky 13th expedition, with minimal preparation time against the world-leading hosts, will take some achieving.

Learning from previous mistakes is all part of the challenge. And how about this for a rallying call from Eddie Jones, who knows a fair bit about the relative strengths of both hemispheres. “I think the Lions have got a great chance,” he said. “You win that first Test and you make the whole country worried. You know there’s going to be this ferocious hit-back but if you are prepared to withstand that you’re in with a chance. I don’t think it’s beyond reality they can go there and win 2-1.”

Jones makes clear tackling the All Blacks “is a different experience because of the intensity they play at.” In that regard, he views Ireland’s win over New Zealand in Chicago in November as highly significant, even though the All Blacks had key players missing. Ireland, and to a lesser extent England, have shed the inferiority complex that once existed. “Once you’ve played them and beaten them it’s a hell of an advantage,” Jones said.

Gatland also knows that while the Lions’ record in New Zealand may be rubbish, the touring side won their last series in Australia in 2013, should have beaten South Africa in 2009 and will travel with as collectively strong a party as have left these islands.

The hardest thing is normally the last four or five players, with the right personalities, people who are going to be good tourists

Warren Gatland

“The hardest thing is normally the last four or five players, with the right personalities, people who are going to be good tourists,” said Gatland on Sunday. “The first 25 to 30 players are easy but it’s getting the last four or five which is a challenge.”

So let’s try to help out. The Lions, first and foremost, will need a brutal pack of forwards capable of squeezing their hosts where it hurts them most: denying them quick ball and a prompt passage over the gainline. They need powerful athletes but also players with serious stamina, endless passion and resilient minds. “The major weakness in our squad was the absence of a strong character who could captain the midweek side and give it purpose and focus,” wrote McGeechan in his end-of-tour report in 1993, and precious little has changed.

Once Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and co have been safely inked in, therefore, the key lies in injecting dressing-room soul. Nobody much has been talking about Peter O’Mahony or Greig Laidlaw as key Lions in New Zealand but they would both be in my squad. No one has played with more savage passion this season than Munster’s O’Mahony; few are more tactically savvy during a game than Laidlaw. Neither individual would regard midweek Lions fixtures in Hamilton or Dunedin as anything other than an honour and privilege.

A similarly clear recruitment process should also apply to some of the closer judgment calls. Jonathan Davies or Garry Ringrose, Tommy Seymour or Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell or Simon Zebo? In every case you could argue the latter trio to be quicker or more instinctively talented. I would nevertheless propose taking Davies, Seymour and Nowell because of the relentless artillery in prospect. A New Zealand winter is not all about top-of-the-ground acceleration and potential.

Knowledge of playing in the southern hemisphere might even help Ben Te’o nip in ahead of the impressive Scott Williams, unpopular though that would make Gatland in Wales. The fun-loving Rob Evans may also be considered but loosehead prop is a position of rare strength: Jack McGrath, Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler have the ability to cause New Zealand problems.

Finn Russell is probably now just behind George Ford unless he steers Glasgow to a European quarter-final victory over Saracens on Sunday week; Jonny Gray also needs a great game opposite Itoje to avoid being overtaken by Ireland’s Iain Henderson. If George Kruis is fully fit then even his compatriot Courtney Lawes may struggle to tour.

Which just leaves the captaincy. I would go for Alun Wyn Jones, on the basis Sam Warburton seems less burdened since relinquishing the Wales role. Sexton might be an outside bet but Gatland will surely prefer a forward. Dylan Hartley? As Chris Robshaw discovered four years ago, leading England brings no guarantee of a Lions passport. Either way, the 2017 Lions look set to have a steely core.

Robert Kitson’s Lions squad

Backs S Hogg (Scotland), L Williams (Wales), E Daly (England), G North (Wales), J Nowell (England), T Seymour (Scotland), J Davies (Wales), J Joseph (England), R Henshaw (Ireland), B Te’o (England), O Farrell (England), G Ford (England), J Sexton (Ireland), G Laidlaw (Scotland), C Murray (Ireland), R Webb (Wales).

Forwards R Best (Ireland), J George (England), K Owens (Wales), J Marler (England), J McGrath (Ireland), M Vunipola (England), D Cole (England), T Furlong (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), I Henderson (Ireland), M Itoje (England), A W Jones (Wales, capt), G Kruis (England), J Launchbury (England), S O’Brien (Ireland), P O’Mahony (Ireland), C Stander (Ireland), J Tipuric (Wales), S Warburton (Wales), T Faletau (Wales), B Vunipola (England).

Schedule madness

World Rugby’s new global calendar blueprint was always going to be some kind of compromise; as Bill Beaumont put it “there is no silver bullet”. For those who missed the announcement, the northern hemisphere nations will now find themselves touring in July from 2020, with November international fixtures starting a week earlier. By far the most alarming proposal, however, has been the suggestion the English domestic season should run from early September to the end of June to remove the need to play on Six Nations weekends. So, let’s just think this one through properly. Even a non-international club player who reaches the Premiership final would, in effect,have only the month July off before jumping back on the pre-season treadmill.

All Test players would miss the start of the domestic season and, if they have school-age children, can now realistically go on a family holiday only during a tiny window in August. When will people realise that less is more when it comes to enhancing professional rugby’s future health and popularity?

And another thing ...

Congratulations to Romania who beat Georgia 8-7 over the weekend to win the Rugby Europe Championship, ending Georgia’s six-year title-winning streak. Some will argue this shows the folly of championing Georgia’s right to join the Six Nations one day. Actually it strengthens the argument for a promotion/relegation play-off. Last time Italy played Romania they won 32-22 in Exeter during the 2015 World Cup, since when the Mighty Oaks have steadily improved. Of the 17 games the two countries have played in Romania since the Azzurri first visited in 1937, Italy have won only twice. If they were playing in Bucharest next month history suggests Italy would be far from automatic winners.

Robert Kitson’s Lions starting XV for the first Test

S Hogg; L Williams, J Joseph, O Farrell, G North; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, K Owens, T Furlong, AW Jones (capt), M Itoje, S Warburton, S O’Brien, B Vunipola

We all know the first Test in Auckland is still over three months away. Combinations will invariably change. But this is the kind of spiky statement Warren Gatland should be trying to make: a rock-hard, aggressive pack, clever half-backs, lethal goal-kickers, a proactive defence, a quick and dangerous full-back. Someone has to stop Julian Savea: over to you, Liam Williams. Hooker, open-side flanker and outside centre are up for grabs but, for now, Jack McGrath, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Nowell are on the bench. Pressure, pressure, pressure: it is the only way to beat New Zealand.

Paul Rees’s Lions starting XV for the first Test

E Daly; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell, L Williams; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, K Owens, T Furlong, J Launchbury, AW Jones, CJ Stander, S Warburton (capt), B Vunipola

New Zealand kick the ball a lot, so a back three filled with quick players with full-back experience will punish inaccuracy; pace and skill in midfield, control at half-back and at forward a mixture of young legs and experience to take on a team that plays at a sustained high tempo. The likes of Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Iain Henderson and Justin Tipuric should have a part to play by the end of a punishing tour: in 2013 the third Test team showed seven changes from the first. The back three and Owen Farrell at 12 would allow a 6-2 split on the bench where Ben Te’o would offer the option of power behind. No Scots, but Sean Maitland could fill the role of Liam Williams.

Andy Bull’s Lions starting XV for the first Test

S Hogg; G North, J Joseph, O Farrell, E Daly; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, R Best, T Furlong, M Itoje, A Wyn Jones, S Warburton, J Tipuric, B Vunipola

As ever the challenge with the Lions is that there’s so little time for everyone to get used to working with each other. It makes sense to pick pairs where you can. So Joseph and Farrell start at centre, and Sexton and Murray are the half-backs. Rhys Webb will play his part in the second half. Up front the pack is stacked with captains, Best, Wyn Jones and Warburton. CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien leave the Lions spoilt for choice in the back row.

Michael Aylwin’s Lions starting XV for the first Test

S Hogg; E Daly, J Joseph, O Farrell, L Williams; J Sexton, R Webb; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong, J Launchbury, M Itoje (capt), CJ Stander, J Tipuric, B Vunipola

Picked without seeing the England-Ireland match in the flesh, which clearly can’t have gone so well for much of this team. But you don’t become rubbish overnight and the Lions series will not be played in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend, a convergence worth more than a few points for the Irish. George Kruis may yet make a play for a spot at lock, which will increase the heat in an already over-contested area (by which we mean the back five of the scrum, not just the second row). Itoje a bolt from the blue as captain, just as one Martin Johnson was.

Gerard Meagher’s Lions starting XV for the first Test

L Williams; J Nowell, E Daly; O Farrell, G North; J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, D Hartley, T Furlong, M Itoje, G Kruis, S Warburton (capt), J Tipuric, CJ Stander

Williams is picked largely for his form in New Zealand last summer while Nowell, despite flitting in and out of the England side, has been exceptional for Exeter this season and Daly is the pick of the outside-centres. Mako Vunipola will get better with a run of matches while Hartley is the hooker most likely to hit double top when it most matters. Kruis, fit and firing, is the first-choice second row amid an abundance of options while Billy Vunipola may take Stander’s place if back to his best. Against England Sexton completed a rare 80 minutes and while it is unlikely he will do so in all three Lions Tests, if he does in the opener this side have a puncher’s chance.

What to read next