Warren Gatland opted for a 41-man British and Irish Lions squad to travel to New Zealand in 2017, but is going for a slimline 36-man squad to take on South Africa later this year.
This is not unfamiliar territory though, as the Kiwi took a 37-man squad to Australia in 2013 with a split of 21 forwards and 16 backs.
A squad of 36 means five players will miss out who were originally in a 41-man draft squad. Given the nature of the opposition and Gatland’s proclivity to select forward-heavy squads in the past with Wales, he may go for 21 forwards and 15 backs. This would suggest two forwards miss out from the 41, and three backs.
In a larger squad, Exeter Chiefs’ Sam Simmonds could have been a useful weapon, but his exile from England will obviously not help.
With so many loose forwards playing at the top of their game during the Guinness Six Nations, Gatland will likely opt for current internationals.
With the likes of locks Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson and Maro Itoje also able to operate at No6, the luxury back row options are likely to be the ones to miss out in Gatland’s refined squad.
Sacrifices will have to be made in the back row, and form may be the deciding factor with Billy Vunipola’s omission after a sluggish Six Nations. Though it would make sense to drop an openside, it would be cruel for one of Justin Tipuric, Tom Curry or player of the Six Nations Hamish Watson to miss out. With Taulupe Faletau the nailed on starter at No8, and CJ Stander able to cover No8 and flanker (and even Tom Curry to do the same), Vunipola is the favourite to miss out.
Dan Biggar and Finn Russell
Even though Owen Farrell can shift to inside centre, it would be strange if Gatland took more than three fly-halves to South Africa. In fact, in 2013 he only took two, which may be his course of action this year as well, with Stuart Hogg serving as a backup No10.
The England captain is more or less assured of a place, meaning Johnny Sexton, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell will battle for two more places. The denouement of Sexton’s Six Nations may have saved him, and even though he will be 36 come the Test series, a strong showing in the Heineken Champions Cup will make a convincing case to go.
Russell provides an attacking threat that the other three do not, which helps him, but that is not necessarily Gatland’s style. Neither he nor Biggar featured in the Tests four years ago against the All Blacks and they could miss out completely this time around.
Duhan van der Merwe
Versatility is key in a small squad, meaning players like Liam Williams, who is able to cover fullback and the wing, and George North, who has proven he can slot in at outside centre and the wing, are more valuable.
Meanwhile, wingers Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Josh Adams have been favourites to be picked for a number of years now, as is the guaranteed selection Hogg at fullback.
That leaves a contest between Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe to face the country of his birth and Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit. The former provides power and the latter pace to crudely compare the two, and though van der Merwe may have finished the Six Nations as top try scorer, the Welshman seems to have the X-factor at the moment and may just shade him.
LIONS SQUAD: After a seismic Guinness Six Nations, Josh Raisey ??? tries to predict the full, 41-man squad that @lionsofficial kingpin Warren Gatland is likely to name this May. https://t.co/6Ob8ZjXkIW
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 22, 2021
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