Warren Gatland’s decision to leave out George Ford and Jonathan Joseph, should it be confirmed when he announces his British and Irish Lions squad on Wednesday, is a timely reminder of how ‘Warrenball’ has been at the forefront of his success as the head coach of Wales and the Lions.
The New Zealander is believed to have left out a number of England’s Six Nations championship-winning side after deciding on a 38-man squad for this summer’s tour of New Zealand, which begins on 3 June.
Both Ford and Joseph, two of the backs that have made England an attacking force to be reckoned with, are set to be snubbed by Gatland, with Mike Brown, James Haskell and Joe Launchbury also missing out on the squad, according to The Telegraph.
What it will mean is that Gatland’s centre options in New Zealand will consist of Owen Farrell in a playmaking inside centre role, and one of Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies and surprise bolter Ben Te’o, who looks to have ousted his English compatriot despite starting just one match for his adopted country.
However, there could yet be another twist in the selection story when it emerged on Tuesday afternoon that 30-year-old Jamie Roberts could yet make the cut, despite the Harlequins centre falling out of the first XV with Wales under interim head coach Rob Howley.
Having based most of his reign as Wales head coach around Roberts and his ability to crash over the gain line more often than not, Gatland called on the Welshman to do exactly the same for the Lions in 2013 on the tour of Australia. While that wasn’t in the slightest bit controversial, given Roberts was one of the leading centres in world rugby and had experience under his belt of starting all three Tests on the 2009 tour of South Africa, Gatland’s decision to replace Lions stalwart Brian O’Driscoll with Davies for the decisive third Test in 2013 did cause a backlash, and his inclusion, if confirmed on Wednesday, would surpass that in terms of the debate it would cause given that Roberts is not in the best of form after a difficult season.
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
1/6 Alun Wyn Jones
Jones is probably still the leading candidate for the captaincy, even if his, and Wales’, Six Nations was not what they were hoping for. Jones took the Welsh armband from Sam Warburton for the championship but at times looked uneasy at making a call, such as when he was overruled when Wales opted to go for the corner against Scotland, rather than taking the shot at three points. Jones captained the Lions in the deciding third Test against Australia in 2013 and is a guaranteed starter if fit – something Gatland is keen for his captain to be, although not a necessity.
2/6 Sam Warburton
Had Wales not finished fifth in the championship with three defeats, there is a good chance Warburton would have been named player of the tournament. The way he reacted to losing the Wales captaincy and moving to blindside flanker has been phenomenal and he is now the bookies’ favourite after his performances and having already led the Lions to a tour victory. Of Warburton’s chances, Gatland said: “He's a different captain to some other players. He leads by example. He doesn't say a lot but he has had that experience. He's one of the guys potentially in contention, definitely.” However, he has been so good without the burden of the armband, would giving it to him hinder his performances?
3/6 Dylan Hartley
Before his red card for Northampton in December, Hartley was the frontrunner for the armband but now his place on the plane is not even assured. For England, Jamie George has impressed and could usurp his captain’s position over the next 12 months, with Hartley arguably not even the third most impressive Hooker the home nations boasted during this year’s Six Nations. However, his grit and fire has been one of the reasons for England’s success under Eddie Jones and it is that sort of personality which could be vital in the hotbed of New Zealand.
4/6 Rory Best
The way Best led Ireland to ending England’s unbeaten run shows that he has the ability to motivate the players around him in tough and gritty situations. He has also captained a side to a win over the All Blacks, the only candidate who is able to say that. Best is certainly a viable candidate but the question mark that remains hanging over him is if he is good enough to start at hooker against the All Blacks? Hartley, Best, George and Wales’ Ken Owens are all in with a shout.
5/6 Owen Farrell
Farrell was player of the tournament after a stunning Six Nations. His kicking is up there with Leigh Halfpenny’s as amongst the best in the world and he has the right mentality of a captain having been schooled under Eddie Jones. Farrell looks certain to start at 12 for the Lions and would make a fierce captain. However, having not captained an international side from the start, how would he fare leading the most intense tour the Lions have embarked on? It is a tough challenge for the most weathered of captains, never mind a novice.
6/6 Conor Murray
An outside shout for captain but the way he controls the game from around the ruck shows his importance to the Lions. He, like Best, has experience of beating the All Blacks and of a winning Lions Tour (like everyone on this list, other than Hartley). He has captaincy experience but while he was a certain starter a month ago, the performances of Rhys Webb have given Gatland a real decision to make. He said he wants to pick his squad first and then his captain and that could go against Murray in the decision-making process if Webb is now considered ahead of him.
The Lions went on the thrash the Wallabies in that decider and secure Gatland’s place in the team’s cherished history, but there were many who believed that he was deploying a game based on battering down the opposition as he had done so similarly with Wales.
This time around, with Farrell looking like the leading contender to be deployed at 12, that leaves three powerful centres battling it out for the 13 shirt. Henshaw would be the leading contender, though he has excelled for Ireland over the last two years in the inside centre role and would need to adjust to the role during the warm-up games. That could hand the advantage to Davies, who has been Wales’s go-to man in the 13 shirt since Tom Shanklin fell out of the side.
Te’o would be the clear underdog, though Gatland could also try out England pair Elliot Daly and Jack Nowell at 13 if they are selected in what would be a much more attacking approach, though risk leaving his side exposed defensively in a very un-Gatland way. That’s why Roberts would offer a more trustworthy option in midfield, and could even see himself leading the midweek side thanks to his experience, given he is unlikely to trouble the Test squad.
The problem for Gatland is that he doesn’t really know who his centre pairing will be going up against. Both Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienart-Brown impressed during the autumn internationals, but that would mean leaving out the wonderfully talented Malakai Fekitoa. George Moala would also be in the mix, but the fact that Jordie Barrett has been left out of the Under-20 World Championship squad suggests he will also be in the mix, along with the returning Sonny Bill Williams.
Those options mean that Steve Hansen could set out his back line with differing approaches. The brute power and offload game offered by Lienart-Brown and Williams varies from the expansive running rugby that Fekitoa and Barrett can offer, while mixing the two would produce something similar to the formidable partnership of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith that combined the best of both worlds and help the All Blacks to back-to-back Rugby World Cups.
Because of this uncertainty, Gatland would be best going to what he knows best: power runners capable of breaking the gain line and coping with the onslaught of power runners that will charge down their channel. It’s tough on Ford and Joseph after helping construct England’s record-equalling 18-match winning streak, and had they defeated Ireland in their Six Nations Grand Slam decider last month, perhaps they would be on the plane. But once again, it looks like defeat in Dublin has cost a number of English players their chance with the lions, such are the fine margins when it comes to selection for the most respected tour in rugby union.
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