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'Kyle's unlucky... Billy, we look at No8s being explosive': Why England duo Sinckler and Vunipola didn't make the Lions cut

By Liam Heagney

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Lions coach Warren Gatland has briefly explained why he left 2017 Test series replacement Kyle Sinckler out of the 2021 squad to tour South Africa in July. The England tighthead’s relationship with the ex-Wales coach hasn’t been the warmest, Gatland describing the forward as an emotional timebomb in the build-up to a 2019 Guinness Six Nations match in Cardiff.

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“Emotionally he can be a bit of a timebomb,” said Gatland at the time. “We will not be going out to antagonise him but the big challenge for him is to keep his emotions under control.” 

Gatland apologised later that year for those remarks but keeping emotions under control was something Sinckler was unable to do as recently as January when he was cited following Bristol’s Gallagher Premiership win at Exeter for swearing at a referee, a reprimand that resulted in the suspension that caused him to miss England’s opening round Six Nations defeat to Scotland.

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The crazy reaction on the RugbyPass Fanzone to the 2021 Lions squad announcement

There was no mention of the Sinckler temperament when Gatland outlined the thinking why the Lions have instead chosen Ireland duo Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter along with Scotland’s Zander Fagerson who missed one Six Nations game following a red card in the February loss to Wales.

“There is a number of players that have missed out,” said Gatland after unveiling a 37-man pick, one more than the 36 that had been anticipated. “I don’t really want to focus on too many players who have missed out. If you pick one player in the squad over another then you are often having the same conversation. 

“It was a tough call. Tadhg Furlong has had an outstanding Six Nations, Zander Fagerson has really come on from a Scottish perspective. From a penalty perspective, Scotland probably came out on top of all the nations in the Six Nations at scrum time and he scrummaged pretty well. And someone like Andrew Porter gives us that flexibility in terms of being able to cover both sides. We feel like that we have got that covered. Kyle is unlucky but the other guys we feel can do a good job for us.”

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The selected Fagerson was sent off after he connected with Wyn Jones – another Lions front row pick – at a Murrayfield ruck and the alleged post-collision behaviour of the Welsh loosehead was savagely criticised by Fagerson’s brother Matt, the Scottish No8, in a Rugby World magazine interview some weeks later.

Those words should make for an interesting dynamic when the rival props assemble pre-tour in Jersey. “If Wyn Jones doesn’t roll around on the floor… that was pathetic. He appeals to the ref, got nothing and then stayed on the floor,” said back-rower Fagerson about an incident that could have damaged his brother’s Lions selection prospects.   

Elsewhere in the pack, Billy Vunipola was the other headline England casualty as Gatland opted to include Sam Simmonds, the Exeter No8 who hasn’t been capped at Test level by Eddie Jones since March 2018. Vunipola was the only one of Saracens’ half-dozen England players not to make the Lions cut. 

Credit in the bank worked in favour of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly but that same allowance was not given for Billy Vunipola. “Some of those players haven’t had what they would consider their best Six Nations,” admitted Gatland about players from a club who have been playing in the Championship in recent weeks following Premiership relegation. 

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“It doesn’t mean that they have become bad players overnight because of what they achieved in the last couple of years with England or in the past with Saracens. I have got to be conscious of that, conscious that we can bring some of those players in and create an environment where they are going thrive and be successful. 

“With the loose forwards, with Sam, Toby (Faletau), we look at No8s being explosive in terms of the way they carry with footwork and with Billy at the moment, he is probably not quite there. I didn’t see from him in the Six Nations the same sort of impact that he has had in the past in terms of how important he has been for England when they have been successful, getting across the gain line, busting tackles. Unfortunately, that is the reason why we haven’t picked him in that position.”

 

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'Kyle's unlucky... Billy, we look at No8s being explosive': Why England duo Sinckler and Vunipola didn't make the Lions cut

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