David Flatman: These Lions can win but I wanted a bit more romance
From the Front Row: Best, Robshaw and Zebo can consider themselves highly unfortunate
Sunday 05 May 2013
A nation waited with bated breath on Tuesday morning as the British & Irish Lions squad was about to be announced. Well, I say that – most of us just kept refreshing the web page on our iPhones – but still, it was dead exciting. Imagine being a player on days like those, having no inkling as to whether or not your life is set to change and your childhood dreams are to be realised. Heady stuff.
But as a supporter, and even though I do think the chosen blokes could indeed win this series, I wanted a bit more romance, frankly. I know it is absolutely not the job of the selectors to get Mr Armchair cooing, but a few real bolters would have been fun.
At least there were a few names that caused eyebrows to head north, so let's just be grateful for that. But three omissions were very interesting. Rory Best, Chris Robshaw and Simon Zebo can consider themselves highly unfortunate to be left out.
When we watched Ulster take Northampton apart at Franklin's Gardens, Best looked a nailed-on Lions starter. I even thought him a good outside bet to be skipper, with Warburton hardly flying at that point. But he hasn't held his form, and Gatland and his heavies feel that Dylan Hartley's abrasive, confrontational nature is more valuable come game day than Best's admirable work-rate.
Robshaw must be devastated. Respected by all, he is a monstrously committed player who manages to balance a freakish dedication to his job with real social intelligence. He is a top bloke to have around.
However, look at the players selected in his position and they are all achingly good at what they do. For me, the only question mark is Dan Lydiate. He will, effectively, be using a Lions tour to get back to top fitness, and this is unarguably a risk. If it pays off, he could demolish the Wallabies – he is that good. If it doesn't and he doesn't quite fire after so long on the sidelines, Robshaw will be sitting at home punching the wall. Tough call, but Gatland knows Lydiate very well, and he must trust him implicitly.
Zebo has magic in him. No player has ever electrified crowds like Jason Robinson, but Zebo is getting there. On top of all the required attributes of a top winger, he always looks to me like he could still be playing Under-10s on a Sunday morning. He just gets the ball and has a crack, and his innate, infectious confidence seems to release so much of his potential so often.
But he stays, and Sean Maitland goes. Maitland may be classed as a surprise, but he is no bolter. Yet no sooner had he arrived than he was capped and congratulated, such is his talent. What little we have seen of him on the international stage tells us that little appears to be beyond him. Could we be about to meet the next John Bentley? Let's hope so.
The real shocks were in the front row. Matt Stevens and Mako Vunipola cannot have been on the radars of many. Scotsman Ryan Grant had an excellent Six Nations – better than Vunipola, one might argue – but lost out, I expect, on X-factor alone. Alex Corbisiero is England's best loosehead, but he just hasn't played enough this season. Paul James of Wales reportedly came very close and is certainly a better set-piece player than Vunipola, but the firm pitches and likely strength of midweek scrummaging opposition meant that the younger man's quite stunning ability in the loose carried more weight.
Stevens's ability to cover both sides of the scrum helped his cause. James offers this versatility too, but Stevens is a natural tighthead who can cover the loose – the opposite of James – and, with tighthead considered to be the tougher role, Stevens got the nod.
But he wasn't picked for this reason alone. He is a very large unit and his club, Saracens, far from battling to control his weight, actively encourage him to be XXL. Most props see running as torture and Stevens won't win any points for aesthetics, but for a big man he can really move. When one considers he will repeatedly represent 130kg on the hoof, one can see how he ticks so many boxes.
Australia had better be ready to match a hugely powerful pack of Lions.
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