Warrenball 2.0? What Warren Gatland's Lions squad tells us about how he wants to play

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A composite image of Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje etc. 
A composite image of Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje etc.

Warren Gatland knows that the meek and mild do not go to South Africa and win Test matches. To that end, this squad, with a smattering of surprises, has been selected to make a statement to the world champions; it is versatile, flexible, and full of gumption and grafters.

The last time the Lions won in South Africa, 1997, featured the youngest and most inexperienced squad of the professional era and the squad that lost 12 years later was the opposite. This squad, with just under half the tourists heading on their first ever tour, is raw – but there is talent.

Here, Telegraph Sport analyses what Gatland’s squad tells us about how the Lions might approach the challenge of the Springboks.

Midfield pragmatism

The modus operandi of this squad is pragmatic, physical rugby. The fripperies of style have been dispensed with, for athletic specimens to stand up to the power of the Bokke. No places for the elegance of George Ford, the intelligence of Henry Slade or the gliding Garry Ringrose; no spot for the weaving ball control of Johnny Sexton, either.

The three out-and-out centres are the Irish duo of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, and Scotland’s Chris Harris; fine players all, but there are more accomplished footballers who have been excluded. In the absence of Manu Tuilagi, Gatland is looking to shore up the midfield against the threat of South Africa’s rampaging centre, Damian de Allende and perhaps, even exploit the more lightweight areas of the Springbok side.

In this file picture taken on November 14, 2020 Scotland's wing Duhan Van Der Merwe runs in to score a try during the Autumn Nations Cup rugby union match Italy vs Scotland at the Artemio-Franchi stadium in Florence, Tuscany. - Duhan Van Der Merwe, South Africa-born wing is a potential try-scoring machine for his adopted country - VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images
In this file picture taken on November 14, 2020 Scotland's wing Duhan Van Der Merwe runs in to score a try during the Autumn Nations Cup rugby union match Italy vs Scotland at the Artemio-Franchi stadium in Florence, Tuscany. - Duhan Van Der Merwe, South Africa-born wing is a potential try-scoring machine for his adopted country - VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

Outside De Allende, the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi are dynamic back-three players, but in comparison with the South African juggernauts inside them they are more lithe. In a straight one-on-one you would fancy the heft of Scottish wing Duhan van der Merwe against Kolbe, and you might even fancy the muscle of Aki over Am, too.

The fly-halves, too, while offering different styles, are all tremendous kickers, offering magnificent variety; whether it be the short-range snipes of Russell, the tactical precision of Farrell or the up-and-under prowess of Biggar, these are three fly-halves that know the territory game, and know that any victory in South Africa will be based on it.

Mobile forwards…

Two light No 8s and no Billy Vunipola to take on the bulldozing South Africans? Jack Conan and Sam Simmonds might seem peculiar selections to confront the marauding Springbok back-row, full of beasts such as Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, but perhaps confrontation is not the answer. When England tried that in 2019, they were swamped by the power of the Springbok pack.

Ireland's Jack Conan. Issue date: Thursday May 6, 2021. PA Photo. The British & Irish Lions Head Coach, Warren Gatland, has today named a 37-man squad to tour South Africa for the 2021 Castle Lager Lions Series -  Adam Davy/PA Wire
Ireland's Jack Conan. Issue date: Thursday May 6, 2021. PA Photo. The British & Irish Lions Head Coach, Warren Gatland, has today named a 37-man squad to tour South Africa for the 2021 Castle Lager Lions Series - Adam Davy/PA Wire

Meeting fire with fire might be futile this summer so, instead, Gatland has approached things shrewdly. If the Lions cannot go through the Springbok wall, then they might as well try and scoot round it. Conan and Simmonds on the back-row are strong men but it is their dynamism that sets them apart. Toby Faletau, while a No 8 by trade, covers the ground swiftly and has been playing at blindside for his club, Bath. The rest of the out-and-out flankers – Tom Curry, Hamish Watson, Justin Tipuric – buzz around like bees. There will be no stodginess to the back five of this scrum.

The same could be said of the front row, too, where the likes of Rory Sutherland, Zander Fagerson and Wyn Jones have all earnt their coin by their enthusiasm and energy in the loose. Running the South African heavies ragged, playing at a consistently high tempo that their rusty legs will not be able to match, is clearly the aim.

…who still target the set-piece

The lineout’s increasing importance will not have been lost on Gatland and, with this squad’s pragmatic flavour and emphasis on the fundamentals, it takes on renewed impetus. It is rare for a team to win a match in modern rugby with a dysfunctional lineout, let alone in South Africa, against some of the planet’s best lineout forwards in Eben Etzebeth and Du Toit among others. Only once in the past five Six Nations has a team won the tournament with an overall lineout success percentage of less than 90 (Wales in 2019).

Jamie George’s inclusion points to set-piece focus, so too the selection of Jonny Hill – who called the lineout for the domestic and European champions, Exeter, as well as during his time in an England shirt. Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson of Ireland are superb lineout operators and, if they are selected at blindside, will offer an extra option at the tail. Every back-rower picked, perhaps except Hamish Watson, is a lineout option; in the 50-50 calls, perhaps that was the nail in Billy Vunipola’s coffin?

Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets in action against Ross Molony of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 17 match between Scarlets and Leinster at Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli, Wales - Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets in action against Ross Molony of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 17 match between Scarlets and Leinster at Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli, Wales - Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Gatland, too, after facing the South Africans in the 2019 World Cup semi-final with Wales and watching them overwhelm England a week later in the final, will be aware of how important the scrum is to the Springboks' rugged approach. The omission of Kyle Sinckler is surprising, but in the Englishman’s stead come fierce scrummagers. The Scottish duo of Sutherland and Fagerson are much improved in this area and the Irish duo of Furlong and Porter offer explosive power, with the latter even able to play on both sides. For every off day that Mako Vunipola has the scrum he has an on day, too. If Gatland sees more “ons” than “offs” from his favourite loosehead this summer then the Lions might be halfway there.

Take the points when offered

The last time the Lions went to South Africa, in that tectonic tour in 2009, the series was won by Morné Steyn kicking a last-minute penalty at altitude in the second Test from inside his own half. Those scars remain deep for everyone, on one of the Lions’ most bittersweet days, but no one will still feel the effects of events 12 years ago like Gatland, an assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan that day at Loftus Versfeld.

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With two of three Tests this summer also taking place at altitude – the first and third at Johannesburg before the second Test pit-stop to Cape Town at sea level – Gatland knows how vital a long-range goal-kicker could be in his attacking arsenal. Step forward, Elliot Daly; the longest goal-slinger in the West. Four years ago, in another decisive Lions Test – this time the third Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park – Daly stepped up and slotted a monstrous penalty from inside his own half. With that sort of cannon, it is not ridiculous to suggest that in Johannesburg, on the Highveld, the England full-back could be slotting them from his own 10-metre line.

In the 50-50 selection calls, even with his perceived lack of form in an England shirt, Daly’s prowess off the tee was always going to see him home. Especially when allied with his ability to play centre, wing and full-back.

The backline selection is stacked with goal-kickers, too. Along with Daly, all of the fly-halves are goalkickers, while scrum-half Conor Murray and full-back Stuart Hogg have kicked goals, too.

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