British and Irish Lions squad 2013: Chris Robshaw and Jonny Wilkinson miss out - but sadly so does variety
Wilkinson made himself unavailable for Lions tour but England captain 'unlucky' while lack of invention at centre is concern
The British and Irish Lions have never been about England alone, whatever they may think in the shires, but there is no denying the red rose's capacity to hijack a squad announcement ahead of a quadrennial trip to the southern hemisphere. The absence of two high-profile individuals, Jonny Wilkinson and Chris Robshaw, from the party charged with beating the Wallabies on Australian soil this summer did not go down well with Twickenham Man, who spent much of the day spluttering into his real ale.
Forget the fact that the widely anticipated English meltdown failed to materialise – the 10-man contingent, including a "retired" international in the spherical shape of the Saracens prop Matt Stevens, is two up on 2009 – and that Warren Gatland and his coaches offered perfectly cogent arguments in justifying their decisions. The cries of "wot, no Jonny?" and the yells of anguish in support of the current national captain could be heard for many a mile.
Yet the most serious question mark over this long-awaited selection, eight months in the gestation, does not concern Wilkinson, who to all intents and purposes was not available for selection anyway, and has still less to do with a back-row formation so strong that it was always going to be brutally hard on someone. The issue centres on the centres, so to speak. At first glance – and, indeed, at second and third – there may not be sufficient variety to upset a side as strategically flexible and tactically astute as Australia.
Gatland could easily have reduced his full-back armoury by a third and added a multi-tasking midfielder with a kicking game as well as a running one – somebody such as James Hook, the prodigal Welshman whose rich playmaking talent now teeters on the edge of irrelevance. Instead, the coach will ask Stuart Hogg of Scotland to cover bases from 10 to 15, even though the man from Melrose has not played as an inside back since his schooldays. It is a risk. And not a small one, either.
But of course, it was the Wilkinson-Robshaw issue that drove the agenda. Gatland explained, patiently at first and then with a slight show of exasperation, that as far as the World Cup-winning outside-half was concerned, there was no decision to be made. He contacted Wilkinson on Monday, just before the final selection meeting, and received the news he had long expected – together with some he had not foreseen at all.
"Jonny respected the call and told me he was honoured by it but said he couldn't commit 100 per cent because of his situation in France with Toulon," the coach reported. "He couldn't guarantee flying out with us to Hong Kong for the start of the tour because his club may well be playing in the national championship final, which takes place on the same day as our first match.
"He was also honest about himself, telling me that he was struggling physically, that his body was just about holding together and that he probably needed a bout of surgery."
In truth, the selectors agonised for longer over Robshaw's situation. As recently as mid-March, the Harlequins flanker had been among the favourites to emulate Bill Beaumont and Martin Johnson by securing the captaincy, but England's heavy Six Nations defeat in Cardiff blew a hole in his candidacy – not least because Sam Warburton of Wales, the original front-runner, rediscovered the very best of himself during those 80 one-sided minutes. If Robshaw was not going to be the main man, Gatland felt, there was no obvious place for him as a foot soldier.
"That was the most intensely physical Test match I've seen in the northern hemisphere," said the New Zealander, who was raised in the white heat of All Black rugby, "and it was all I could have wished for in terms of watching people perform under real pressure. For some players, that game was the coin-flip. The balance shifted away from a few Englishmen, towards a few Welshmen."
In a display of Cabinet-like collective responsibility, the English members of Gatland's think tank – the defence coach Andy Farrell and the forwards strategist Graham Rowntree – stood firmly behind the decision. But Rowntree, as honest as the day is long, did not pretend it had been easy. "Chris is desperately, desperately unlucky," he confessed, with good reason, "and it will be a difficult conversation for me to have with him later on. He's been outstanding for England."
Warburton will have plenty of familiar faces around him on the far side of the Equator: 14 of the Welshmen who started that fateful game with England are on the trip, the outside-half Dan Biggar being the one predictable exception. Warburton will also re-acquaint himself with blind-side flanker Dan Lydiate, fresh back from long-term injury. Not since 1977, when the Lions lost a close and bitter series against the All Blacks, have so many members of the Red Dragonhood made the cut.
There are some imaginative choices to go with such stone-cold certainties as the four-tour centre Brian O'Driscoll, the brilliant young wing George North and the scrum-half Mike Phillips, around whom the Lions will base an aggressive, high-impact challenge to the Wallabies.
The Scotland wing Sean Maitland, new to international rugby after a successful provincial career in his native New Zealand, is a wise selection, and it may be that the fast-tracked England prop Mako Vunipola will rise to the occasion. Certainly, the naturalised Tongan has a power game to hurt Australia in open field.
There is, however, a chance being taken on the playmaking front, for this is the first time since the visit to South Africa in 1997 that the Lions have travelled south with only two specialist outside-halves. "It is such a pivotal thing in terms of leadership and navigation," said Gatland, reflecting on the task ahead of the Irish No 10 Jonathan Sexton and the English youngster Owen Farrell. "They'll need game time. We can't afford to play them underdone."
As ever, there was logic to his argument. But if either man falls short of expectations, the Wilkinson Question will flare up again. With a vengeance.
Backs: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Rob Kearney (Ireland), Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland), George North (Wales), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England), Owen Farrell (England), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (England).
Forwards: Dan Cole (England), Cian Healy (Ireland), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Matt Stevens (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dylan Hartley (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Tom Youngs (England), Ian Evans (Wales), Richie Gray (Scotland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Geoff Parling (England), Tom Croft (England), Toby Faletau (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales, captain)
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