by Becky Grey
Wednesday 19th April 2017
TODAY in South-West London, the so-called best-kept secret in rugby was unveiled. Of course, in the age of Twitter even the best-kept secrets can be a bit leaky and, indeed, the much-awaited Lions squad announcement was not completely watertight. However, now that we know for certain which rumours were true and which of our predictions were correct, it’s time to move onto the next stage of Lions coverage: discussion of contentious squad choices.
For many, the headline story of today’s announcement was the decision to hand Jamie George a ticket to New Zealand over England captain Dylan Hartley. George and Saracens were the victors when the two hookers went head-to-head on Sunday. On that day, George just outdid Hartley in terms of tackles, making only two more than the Saints player, but the latter impressed in attack with his first try of the Premiership season.
Hartley has been criticised for his lack of discipline in the past and we cannot forget that a suspension for verbally abusing Wayne Barnes kept him of the last Lions Tour in 2013. However, rather than criticising the England captain, Warren Gatland sang the praises of Hartley’s replacements and admitted the decision to leave him out was not taken lightly, causing a lengthy discussion and debate among the coaches.
“We had some lively debate and Dylan is very unlucky in terms of not going,” he said.
“Dylan has done a great job for England since he has captained the team. There's no doubt about that or his leadership qualities,” he added.
“At the end of the day we felt we couldn't leave Jamie (George) out. There's a potential for him to keep improving. He's done a good job coming off the bench and is playing well for Saracens. We felt there's continued improvement in him as a player and that Rory (Best) and Ken (Owens) had great Six Nations.”
Another man who played himself into the famous red jersey during the Six Nations was Ross Moriarty, though the Wales international’s bid began in the very country he will visit in June. Moriarty impressed coaches on Wales’ Summer Tour of New Zealand last year where he played a full 80 minutes in all three tests.
Seeing Moriarty named in the Lions squad surprised some members of the rugby community, but it must have been the perfect birthday present for the young flanker, who turned 23 yesterday. Many were astounded to see Moriarty taken off in Wales’ game against England during the Six Nations, after he had put in an enormous attacking effort - making 11 carries.
Moriarty can play at six or eight and this versatility will make him an asset in New Zealand, but Lions coach Rob Howley is more excited about the influence other members of the squad could have on the Gloucester forward.
He said, “Put Ross in alongside a Vunipola and a Sean O’Brien, and who knows? That’s the wonderful experience the coaches are going to have.”
One Welshman who may not be such a popular choice is Leigh Halfpenny. It is fair to say Halfpenny’s performances have lacked lustre since his move across the channel. The Six Nations proved to be somewhat turbulent for the fullback as he went from scoring 18 points and earning man of the match against Italy to causing confusion with his indecision over whether to kick for goal in Wales’ loss to Scotland three weeks later.
Kyle Sinckler, on the other hand, is on the opposite trajectory as he convinces more and more rugby fans that he can make a world-class prop. Evidently, this is an opinion shared by Warren Gatland and his fellow Lions coaches.
Sinckler ensured his name seeped into the newspapers thanks to his game-changing performances as one of Eddie Jones’ ‘finishers’ during the Six Nations. Now, Lions and Harlequins coach, Graham Rowntree believes Sinckler can make his presence known on the Lions tour, bringing a ‘fearless energy’ to shake up both training sessions and matches.
“He is not the finished article, he has a long way to go, but he has hunger,” Rowntree said. “He’s an angry young man, I like that. I want that abrasive edge to his game. That's what it takes to beat the All Blacks.”
Finally, we have to address the elephant in the room - or the elephant left out of the room as it may be in this case. Indeed, the Scots are conspicuous in their absence from Gatland’s squad list. Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour made the cut, and rightly so, but it is perhaps strange that the team that finished fourth in the Six Nations has nine less Lions representatives than the team that finished below them?
The Gray brothers surely deserved to be selected, and perhaps Jonny Gray would have been had the result of Glasgow’s Champions Cup clash with Saracens ended differently. Gatland admitted he had ‘looked closely’ at that match, in which Jonny Gray captained his club to a 38-13 loss.
There is no denying that Scotland put in some incredible performances against Ireland and Wales at Murrayfield earlier in the year, but their poor record away from home may have affected the players’ Lions chances.
“There’s no doubt that Scotland have done very well. They will be aggrieved and disappointed about that. They performed exceptionally well at home,” Gatland said.
The 2013 triumphant Lions Coach went on to impress upon the inquisitive press corps that selection was made entirely on merit: “That was a thing – take the nationality out of it, let’s put all the players in contention in the positions and discuss that. Go through the pros and cons of the players and forget about nationality.”
However, in the next breath Gatland pounced directly on that nation of Scotland as not particularly fit for purpose given their 21st century touring history, contradicting his previous statement.
“We are not playing at home. We are playing away from home. Scotland haven’t been to New Zealand since 2000. And we are playing the best team, back-to-back world champions, in their own back yard. We have to perform away from home, that’s going to be paramount.”
Whether we agree with the choices announced today or not, there is no denying that a devastatingly enthralling five weeks of rugby await us as one of the most unique teams in rugby takes on the best. Perhaps we should just be content with that and make our peace with who will be involved.
As Gatland himself put it, “There was always going to be a tough call and someone was always going to be disappointed.”
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