Warren Gatland selects brawn over brain for British and Irish Lions test in New Zealand

Nick Howson
Warren Gatland and Sam Warburton

''Slabs of red meat'' was how Warren Gatland's first British and Irish Lions squad was received in 2013 and given the make-up of his 41-man party to face the All Blacks this summer, Kiwi headline writers will be licking their lips with glee. With guile at a premium, the backbone is based purely on power in the hope of bowling over the double world champions on their own patch.

In Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath and Mako Vunipola there are three front-row forwards big on explosiveness and regular breakers of the gain line; the inexperienced Kyle Sinckler meanwhile represents an impact replacement emanating from a group of England ''finishers'' which Gatland will be keen to replicate. Joe Launchbury's remarkable omission points to that combative approach, as does Thomas Francis', while Iain Henderson's pure physicality means he was a natural choice once a philosophy had been identified.

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Perhaps bar the twinkled-toed Jonathan Joseph and Six Nations player of the championship Stuart Hogg, there is little in the way of imagination and genuine skill. That Joseph's inclusion is something of a surprise tells you all you need to know about the make-up of this group. Though Jamie Roberts was eventually omitted, his consideration for selection suggests Gatland's approach will focus on outmuscling Steve Hansen's men. And it could come back to bite them, even if they can nullify Beauden Barrett.

Jack Nowell struggled to make an impact in the Six Nations, while Anthony Watson is yet to truly recapture the form from the start of his international career – yet their selection has barely been challenged. Jonathan Davies' skill-set is limited despite his know-how and Dan Biggar is also searching for form. But each of them provide commitment and a willingness and aptitude to put their bodies on the line while fitting the type of game plan which succeeded in Australia four years ago. And as far as mindset and strategy are concerned, nothing says continuity like the retention of Sam Warburton as captain.

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Dylan Hartley

British and Irish Lions fixtures [8:35am BST kick-off time unless otherwise stated]

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Saturday 3 June: Provincial Union XV - Toll Stadium, Whangarei

Wednesday 7 June – Blues – Eden Park, Auckland

Saturday 10 June – Crusaders – AMI Stadium, Christchurch

Tuesday 13 June – Highlanders – Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

Saturday 17 June – New Zealand Maori – International Stadium, Rotorua

Tuesday 20 June – Chiefs– Waikato Stadium, Hamilton

Saturday 24 June – New Zealand– First Test, Eden Park, Auckland

Tuesday 27 June – Hurricanes – Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Saturday 1 July – New Zealand – Second Test, Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Saturday 8 July – New Zealand – Third Test, Eden Park, Auckland

But the All Blacks are the ultimate sluggers in world rugby. Other than being the most clinical with the ball in hand, on a physical level they can mix it with any side on the planet. If indeed Gatland does plan on running head on into the world number one ranked nation with the same power-based game which has defined England's rise to world number two then if nothing else he certainly has the equipment to do it. But the likes of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock won't shirk the challenge.

In the end, such a reputation may have done for Dylan Hartley, who joins the likes of Chris Robshaw and Steve Borthwick in being overlooked for a Lions tour despite captaining England. Could the skipper be trusted in the intense environment of a gruelling tour which sees them play 10 times in five weeks? Notwithstanding Ken Owens' form, you would think not.

The size of the party of 41 which will initially travel to New Zealand is as much a reflection of the brand of rugby Gatland wishes to play as the schedule. Four extra players will be required this time around to deal with the best Super Rugby have to offer, not including the inevitable injuries which will beset the group.

New Zealand

"We put together a group of players in each position," the 53-year-old said. "You play against the All Blacks and you have to believe they are human. The can be put under pressure, they're like everyone else." Gatland will have toyed with either trying to run through or over New Zealand this summer. Either way it is arguable that he will be trying to beat their hosts at their own game. And in that sense the double grand slam and European Cup winner can't possibly prevail.

British and Irish Lions 2017 squad

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

Backs: Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Leigh Halfpenny, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg, Jonathan Joseph, Conor Murray, George North, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Tommy Seymour, Johnny Sexton, Ben Te'o, Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Ben Youngs.

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