The real Lions squad surprises aren't the ones making headlines - Andy Goode
There was the usual consternation surrounding the British and Irish Lions squad selection yesterday but I actually love the look and feel of the squad.
Of course, there are a few surprises and the selections will be picked apart by everyone because it is the pinnacle of rugby on these shores but I had 26 of the men chosen by Warren Gatland in the 36-man squad I predicted.
The head coach opted to include an extra player in the end, naming a 37-man squad, and I have a feeling that may end up being 38 once Manu Tuilagi has returned for Sale Sharks and proven he’s fit enough to make the trip.
The likes of Bundee Aki, Jack Conan, Courtney Lawes and Sam Simmonds are the names being mentioned by many as being the biggest shocks but I actually think it’s a couple of the more established names that raised eyebrows more.
There will have been some players watching the announcement and feeling pretty fortunate to be included. That doesn’t mean in any way that they aren’t deserving of their places but not all 37 players have been picked on form.
Mako Vunipola and Elliot Daly stand out in that respect but both offer qualities that others in their position just don’t. Mako’s ability in the loose sets him apart and Elliot has a booming left boot that gives you a kicking option from your own half at sea level so that’ll almost extend to your own 22 at altitude!
Lawes’ inclusion shouldn’t have come as quite as much of a shock as it did. The fact that he’s currently returning from injury and has played just one Premiership game for Northampton this season is why it did but he played in a couple of Tests for the Lions in 2017, has 87 caps for England and, crucially, is perfectly suited to facing the Springboks in their own back yard.
I think that’s why a lot of people seem so taken aback by some of the selections because they didn’t take into account the opposition and conditions when making their predictions, whereas Gatland will have left no stone unturned and taken everything into account.
Physicality is clearly a factor that has informed his choices at centre and I have to admit that is one position I didn’t predict correctly. Had the Lions been touring Australia, there’s every chance Garry Ringrose and Henry Slade would’ve gone, but they aren’t.
Instead, Bundee Aki and Chris Harris have been selected for their physical and defensive capabilities. Aki, in particular, came out of leftfield for many but I did have him written down just outside the four names I forecast to be chosen at centre.
Clearly, his size and strength count in his favour but he offers far more that that. He’s got a more decent passing game than people give him credit for and has the ability to offload out of contact where others can’t.
Jonathan Davies is the most notable omission in the backs because of his relationship with Gatland and the fact that he was player of the series in 2017 but I think durability possibly counted against him, as it did Johnny Sexton.
He also didn’t play in Ireland’s big win over England in March but did feature in the three previous defeats against the same opposition when physicality was one of the major deciding factors.
On the flip side, Conan was a surprise Irish inclusion but he was a name I floated as a possible inclusion earlier in the week as well because he’s been in great form of late.
And, Sam Simmonds may have been overlooked by England recently for reasons only known to Eddie Jones but he’s been playing phenomenal rugby for a long time now and his inclusion was a no brainer for me.
The squad that is picked is never the one that actually gets on the plane and, with seven weeks to go until the first game against Japan at Murrayfield, it was interesting to see how different players responded to being left out.
The reasons for Joe Marler’s omission could be various and his social media response, as well as the fact he’s been speaking about not getting an email and regrets about the 2017 tour, suggest he isn’t expecting a call-up in the event of an injury.
Kyle Sinckler, on the other hand, is a player I had pencilled in and his message indicating it’s “not a time to feel sorry for myself and blame others. Let’s get behind the squad” has the ring of a man who knows he’s one injury away from playing for the Lions again.
It’s a really exciting squad and one that we should all be able to get behind but one of the most interesting aspects of it is that I don’t think there are as many nailed on Test starters in there as there have been on previous tours.
The debate around the make-up of the squad was ended yesterday and the outcome is a balanced selection with a number of players capable of playing in a couple of positions. Now let the debate about who starts in the Test XV commence.
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