Warren Gatland springs surprises as Lions brace for ‘brutal’ tour of South Africa

Sam Simmonds is included while Johnny Sexton and Kyle Sinckler were surprising omissions

British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland

Over four hours and from more than 70 names, Warren Gatland and his coaches whittled it down. By the end of Wednesday’s final selection meeting, it was decided that a 36-player squad was not sufficient - the quality of options and nature of the tour necessitated that three dozen became 37, leaving the endless squad predictions destined for disposal like pre-election literature through the letterbox.

The squad Gatland and his team of coaches have settled upon is typically full of surprises, the names not among the 37 as eye-catching as those included. Of early concern will be the midfield, where combinations are not entirely clear, but otherwise, and as is to be expected, it is a mightily strong touring group, to be led, as was ever likely, by Alun Wyn Jones.

The extra player comes in the back five in the pack, indicative of the qualities of attrition and abrasion demanded by the position, particularly when headed for a land of giants. The learnings from the 2009 tour, when Gatland, then an assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan, felt the squad were under-prepared physically for the first test, have been taken.

“In all my time in coaching this is the most challenging squad I’ve ever been involved in picking,” Gatland explained. “I think South Africa have gone back to their DNA – it is about winning the physical battle. If you were going to Australia or New Zealand, the make-up of the squad and certain players might be a little bit different.

“We want to play some really good rugby but at times we are going to have to roll our sleeves up and get in the trenches to battle it out with them. It is going to be tough and it is going to be brutal at times.”

Indeed that brutality is perhaps why Johnny Sexton does not find his place in the fly-half’s group, with concerns over his durability as he again spends time in recovery. Likewise, Manu Tuilagi’s likely gradual return from a serious Achilles injury has perhaps worked in the favour of Bundee Aki, something of a carrying facsimile, in midfield. Duhan van der Merwe adds further muscle as a wing option.

Yet while physicality has dictated much of the selection, Gatland and attack coach Gregor Townsend, particularly, have also sought players with a point of difference and a degree of utility. There are four locks who could conceivably play on the blindside, while elsewhere in the back row, the fancier footwork of Sam Simmonds and presumed starter Taulupe Faletau has been favoured to the more direct threats of CJ Stander and Billy Vunipola, alongside the two number eights’ many other qualities.

Simmonds is a bolter in some ways, though on form a deserved inclusion, such is his efficacy and threat as a sharp bayonet on Exeter’s destructive forward musket. When asked how best to use the “dynamic” threat of Simmonds, it was clear the cogs of Townsend’s creative attacking mind had already begun to whir.

Alun Wyn Jones will captain the Lions in South Africa

Similarly, Elliot Daly is listed among the centres rather than in the back three, and it is at 13 that the Lions see his best home for the tour. With his speed on the outside arc, raking left boot and ability to add an option from long-range off the tee, he is a useful player to take at altitude and can challenge Lukhanyo Am, South Africa’s key defensive lynchpin, in an alternative manner.

It is a surprise to see, putting Tuilagi to one side, none of Garry Ringrose, Henry Slade and particularly Jonathan Davies, so good in New Zealand four years ago, tour. Chris Harris’ defensive nous is valuable, and his existing relationship with both Townsend and defence coach Steve Tandy has perhaps counted in his favour, but Davies is a fine operator in that regard, too.

Daly is one of five Saracens to make the squad, the greatest contingent drawn from any one club. It seems a surprise given how that quintet largely floundered in the Six Nations and the comparatively limited quality of the Championship in which they are plying their week-to-week trade. Townsend views it differently, however, suggesting that the confidence and ambition the English second-tier affords the five may stand them in good stead.

The coaches revealed on Thursday that more than 70 letters been sent out to potential squad members. Those who received one will remain on standby while the squad assembles in Jersey, provided political tensions ease, next month and beyond for when the almost inevitable injuries strike.

That leaves a glimmer of hope for those unfortunate, like Kyle Sinckler, a particularly surprising omission at tight-head after a breakthrough tour last time around, and James Ryan, who would have been a real candidate for the starting fifteen this time last year. On what is likely to be a harsh tour for both body and mind, they may just be necessary.

It is a squad not dominated by a single nation but instead spread relatively evenly. England, perhaps surprisingly, supply eleven squad members, Wales ten, and Ireland eight, a figure matched by Scotland – the largest group of Scots for 32 years.

“It shows how competitive the Six Nations was in many ways,” said Jones, who feels his task as leader of the heterogeneous assembly has been made easier by the healthy spread. “When you take the field for either a game or training, it’s unifying pretty quickly. Ultimately, when you pull the Lions shirt on you are a Lion, and there is a common goal to win the series.”

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