British and Irish Lions 2013: Gatland causes a stir with squad selection
British and Irish Lions 2013: Warren Gatland sparks controversy with his 37-man squad for the tour of Australia this summer
Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad was always going to cause a stir as the New Zealander picks the best of four fiercely proud rugby nations, but the 37-man touring party poses more questions than answers.
Arguably the biggest talking point is the omission of England’s Jonny Wilkinson as the fly-half’s performances for Toulon in the Heineken Cup this season sparked a healthy speculation that he would be selected for the tour.
Whilst Wilkinson’s name wasn’t read out by general manager Andy Irvine at Tuesday’s news conference, it later transpired that the Englishman had ruled himself out after declaring his body wasn’t up to the task of a Lions tour.
Gatland added that had Wilkinson been included, it would have been as a third fly-half and not as a replacement for one of the two he did select, Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton.
Although Wilkinson is probably a better player than the other options left at home such as Dan Biggar, James Hook, Toby Flood and Rhys Priestland, the fact the Lions only have two fly-halves is an area of concern.
Why did the thinking change based on Wilkinson’s availability and what happens if one of the two tourists does get injured?
More importantly, it shows there is no room for rotation in the squad, meaning Farrell and Sexton will be involved in most games.
It was suggested that Scottish full-back Stuart Hogg was selected for his ability to cover fly-half but he last played that position at school and hasn’t been exposed to the role since becoming a professional.
While Hogg merits inclusion alongside the certain starter Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney, if Gatland wanted that flexibility he would have been better taking England’s full-back/fly-half Alex Goode or even one from Hook, Billy Twelvetrees or Greg Laidlaw, who have the proven ability to cover numerous key positions.
The absence of Wilkinson also over-shadowed the announcement of Wales’ Sam Warburton as their youngest-ever Lions captain. Gatland made Warburton his Wales captain just before the 2011 Rugby World Cup and he opted for a tried and tested combination in his selection.
Warburton expressed delight at the announcement but he seemed to wilt under the pressure of being the Welsh captain last season and his performance was enhanced when he was relieved of the duty.
The back row is fiercely contested, and on his day Warburton is the best No7 in the Northern Hemisphere, but his Welsh team mate Justin Tupuric will rightly be pushing him for the jersey all the way.
Tom Croft, Sean O’Brien, Dan Lydiate, Jamie Heaslip and Toby Faletau make up the rest of the back row with the English and Scottish captains, Chris Robshaw and Kelly Brown missing the cut completely.
The Red Rose skipper in particular didn’t do much wrong but his lack of natural No7 ability obviously counted against him.
Similarly, arguments for Ben Morgan, Johnnie Beattie and Tom Wood can all be made but Gatland went for proven Lions and those he has worked with closely previously in his role as Welsh head coach.
Another surprise inclusion in the back’s squad was Scotland’s winger Sean Maitland. With only five caps to his name the New Zealand-born flyer will get the opportunity to face off against his cousin, the Australian fly-half Quade Cooper.
Maitland is probably the closest to a “Lions bolter” as he only began playing for his country this year. His selection over the likes of Chris Ashton and Tim Visser shows how highly the Lions management rate him but his lack of proven pedigree could stand against him in the eyes of many supporters.
The rest of the wingers were fairly self-explanatory, with Welsh duo, Alex Cuthbert and George North, and Ireland’s Tommy Bowe making up the quartet.
Centre’s Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies picked themselves after strong seasons, although Brad Barritt and Twelvetrees will count themselves unlucky.
Gatland has opted for brute force in Tuilagi and Roberts which is to be complemented with attacking invention from O’Driscoll and Roberts.
The backs squad is completed with three scrum-halves, Ben Youngs, Mike Phillips and Conor Murray. Both Danny Care and Laidlaw can feel rightly aggrieved at missing out as no man has staked his claim for a starting spot just yet.
Among the forwards, the second row would have given the selectors least food for thought with Paul O’Connell, Ian Evans, Alun-Wyn Jones, Richie Gray and Geoff Parling making the trip.
Parling’s inclusion over compatriot Joe Launchbury was a surprise but his lineout ability probably gave him the edge of Launchbury’s dynamism.
However, it is the front row that caused further shocks with Ireland’s hooker Rory Best missing out completely.
Some touted him as an outsider for the captaincy and he will be disappointed to have been overlooked for the second tour running despite having a fantastic season.
The Irish lineout wobbled in the Six Nations and it appears he has paid the price as Wales’ Hibbard and English duo Dylan Hartley and Tom Youngs were preferred.
Hartley can count himself lucky as he lost his England place to Youngs this year and seemed to be a long shot for inclusion at best.
The props also caused some surprise as England’s Matt Stevens and Maku Vunipola were selected despite not being England starters.
They joined nailed on tourists Dan Cole, Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones but the Saracens duo inclusion was unexpected.
Vunipola has come on a great deal this year and is beginning to challenge for an England spot but Stevens has been retired from international rugby since the 2011 World Cup and his ability to play either side of the scrum has counted in his favour.
Inevitably, Gatland has a thankless task as many will dissect his selection and arguments can rightly be made for many who missed out, but it remains important that the squad is allowed the time to bond and develop if the Lions have any hope of a successful tour.