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The Pick of the Pride
The names are drawn, the squad is announced, and the Lion bares its teeth. But has head coach Warren Gatland made the right calls?
It is well documented that the various countries that make up the British Isles do not get along; the Welsh don’t like the English, the Scottish don’t like the English, the Irish don’t like the English, and most of the English don’t like the rest of the English. And of course, the English view the other countries with an air of indifference. However, in rugby terms, once every four years that hatred is placed aside, as four countries bound in blood and rivalry link arms, and unleash their combined aggressions upon the far flung corners of the Antipodes. A tour with the British and Irish Lions was once described as being “a cross between a medieval crusade and a prep school outing,” in which case there will be plenty of drama, blood, sweat and probably a few tears by the time that final test match is played in Sydney in just over one month’s time.
But as is always the case, the first dosage of drama came with the initial squad announcements, in which there were more than a few upsets and twists to be played out. But has head coach Warren Gatland made the correct additions to his ‘crusade’ on Down’Under? Here, we look at some of the biggest calls made by Mr Gatland, and attempt to ascertain them to be correct, or majorly flawed.
No place for Robshaw in the dilemma of the Back Row
The balance of Gatland’s backrow has been one of the most discussed aspects of this 2013 tour. All four nations displayed ample strength in depth in this department throughout the Six Nations, and there is arguable case for every single player to be on that plane to Australia. However, sport is rarely so accommodating as that.
One of the biggest eye brow raisers of the day was the omission of England captain, Chris Robshaw, from the touring party. For the most part, Robshaw had a commendable Six Nations campaign, despite the final 30-3 drubbing handed out to his team by Wales in their final fixture. At one point, he was odds on favourite to nab the Lions captaincy as well.
So was Robshaw unlucky, or is his omission a blaring error by the coaching staff. My verdict, is that he was simply unlucky. Robshaw is a fantastic player. He is a generally excellent all round player, and his dedication and commitment is never questioned. However, he is not a specialist flanker. He is not a master of the dark art of rucking, nor is he a potent attacking threat in the loose. He is simply, a very good jack of all trades, who is missing that x-factor that is required to single you out for Lions duty.
Verdict: Correct decision from Gatland
A choice of hookers: Hartley over Best?
One of the most shocking omissions from Gatland’s squad was undoubtedly the talismanic Irishman, Rory Best. The four nations have struggled to provide any outstanding candidates in this position, but Best was surely considered to be one of the fore runners. Instead, Gatland has chosen to take England and Northampton man, Dylan Hartley; indicating that Gatland sees dominance in the scrum as being pivotal to winning this series.
It is clear to see what Gatland has gone for; Hartley’s scrimmaging and ability to wind up his opposition is probably superior to his Irish counterpart. But I still don’t agree with the selection. The squad already has a huge strength in depth when it comes to scrummaging front row forwards – the likes of Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Dan Cole and Cian Healey to name just a few – and it seems that the squad could easily have done without Hartley’s selection. Best would have brought some much needed experience and level headedness to an otherwise young hooker contingent.
Verdict: Wrong call, Best extremely unlucky.
No French Connection for the third flyhalf
The biggest headline on the day of the squad announcement was the absence of one name: Jonny Wilkinson. There had been much speculation as to the aging World Cup veterans inclusion, and his form as Toulon captain – both in the French domestic league and the Heineken Cup – has been undoubtedly worthy of selection.
For anyone watching the Heineken Cup final on Saturday 18th May, it will have been worryingly obvious that Wilkinson’s current form is remarkable. His commanding presence on the field was reminiscent of his form of the early 2000s, and those years need little summing up for the talismanic Englishman.
Perhaps even more worrying, is that Gatland is only taking two specialist fly halves; Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell of Ireland and England respectively. In addition, there is a worrying lack of cover in that position from the remainder of the squad. In 2009, Ian McGeechan took Stephen Jones, James Hook, Ronan O’Gara, and Riki Flutey – all of whom have played fly half for either club or country. In Australia, all it takes is for one injury to one of the two flyhalves, and the entire tour comes under jeopardy.
The presence of Sexton is all to the good. His decent running game and his solid performances of recent matches will be invaluably on the hard turf of Australia. However, his counterpart Owen Farrell is not so comfortable on his laurels – mainly because he doesn’t have any. Over the last few months, we have seen Farrell on the losing side in several vital matches; England’s game against Wales, and the two semi-finals he has played for Saracens in the Aviva Premiership (where he lost out to Toby Flood and Leicester) and, even more telling, in the Heineken Cup (where he was comprehensibly outplayed by Wilkinson). Gatland has backed his decision of Farrell, claiming he needs a chance to prove he is not a bottler. But a Lions tour is not the place to prove that.
Verdict: Sexton is excellent; Wilkinson should have gone alongside Farrell in the place of one of the other touring party