Warren Gatland’s Lions squad announcement on Tuesday threw up precious few surprises. All the names were more or less expected and there were no massive left-field selections; it is a very pragmatic, a very Gatlandesque squad. I agree that the New Zealander has chosen a squad that probably has the best chance of winning down-under. There is a wealth of experience and defensively, the squad looks nigh on impregnable. However I feel there is something missing from the squad, a player with the X-Factor who can do the unexpected – a mercurial maverick if you will. In 1997, this player was Gregor Townsend; in 2001 – Austin Healey, 2005 – Gavin Henson, 2009 – James Hook. 2013 – N/A. There is no obvious candidate, no one who can supply that defence-splitting pass, nobody who can provide that step/dummy/burst of pace. This used to be the raison-d’être of the Lions. Alas no longer. Up-your-jumper, down-the-middle, safety first play seems to be the order of the day. It is a shame that this Lions series will probably be decided at the breakdown, not by a moment of brilliance in open play.
My first gripe with Gatland’s squad is the omission of Rory Best at hooker. Now Richard Hibbard and Tom Youngs are relatively inexperienced at international level whereas the Irishman has 67 caps and is renowned as a strong leader. True, Dylan Hartley is a seasoned international but he hasn’t exactly had the best season and was usurped by Youngs during the Six Nations. Best was a bit shaky on his throw during that tournament but his performances for Ulster have been nothing short of barnstorming. His work in the loose more than makes up for his apparent shortcomings in the line-out which for me, was only a temporary loss of form. I hope this oversight does not come to haunt Gatland later in the tour.
Chris Robshaw was very unlucky not to be selected but who would he have replaced? Sean O’Brien is a must at blindside flanker and is a great ball-carrier. Tom Croft is also an all-round option who can provide cover at 6 or 7. At openside flanker, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric are ahead of the Harlequins man. Robshaw may feel slightly aggrieved that Dan Lydiate has only played 4 or 5 club matches yet still managed to make it onto the plane. However, Lydiate is a genuinely world-class no. 6 and if he can find his top form of 2011/12 Gatland’s selection will be vindicated.
The only other slightly controversial selection in the pack was Matt Stevens at prop. The Saracens man retired from international rugby in late 2011 after the World Cup but Gatland must have seen something that he liked through his form in the Heineken Cup. Stevens, the gnarled old pro is a formidable scrummager but nothing can replicate the intensity of Test Match Rugby. Can he step up to the plate after almost 2 years in the international wilderness? In the 2011 World Cup he looked off the pace and gave away far too many penalties. He cannot afford to replicate those sorts of performances this summer.
The lack of creativity in the backs is slightly worrying. Maybe I am romanticising the traditions of the Lions too much but aren’t they meant to play (and win) by throwing the ball about with gay abandon? What about the likes of Phil Bennett, JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Jeremy Guscott and Rob Howley? Lions legends who played hard but also with flair. Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies anyone? They all have their various merits, but genius creativity is not one of them. Did it cross Gatland’s mind to select someone like James Hook or Billy Twelvetrees? Or even Danny Care? Players who, if the Lions are losing, can unlock a defence in an instant. O’Driscoll has the weaponry to do so, but he is more of a running centre than a passing centre and the Irishman no longer has the pace of old. The lack of cover at fly-half is also worrying. For such a specialist position, taking just Farrell and Sexton is a risk. If one of them gets injured three or four days before a test match, then you are looking at Stuart Hogg as the back-up option. Hogg is undoubtedly a talented player but he is in no way even a club-level no. 10, let alone at the level required to face the Aussies in the pressure cooker of a Lions series.
The distinct lack of subtlety to Gatland’s game-plan is an issue. The Wallabies aren’t exactly going to be scratching their heads, wondering how the Lions are going to play. They know it’s going to be very physical, forward-dominated game and so they can prepare for that right now and tailor their training accordingly. If it is to be a war of attrition and a survival of the fittest then we could be in for a forward-dominated borefest akin to this year’s Six Nations. I sincerely hope this is not the case and the Lions play some fluid running rugby but I doubt they have the personnel to do so. As long as they have the correct ethos, then ultimately that is all that matters.