Lions coach Warren Gatland signals intent with some x-factor and physicality

Lions coach Warren Gatland signals intent with some x-factor and physicality

As ever, a new British and Irish Lions squad announcement never disappoints – and 2021 was no different. As Lions coach Warren Gatland alluded to this was “such a difficult selection” given the player pool available in certain positions.

As predicted by this rugby website, Alun Wyn Jones deservedly takes the captaincy honours. That was the easy decision. The pleasant surprise is Gatland taking a punt on Sam Simmonds and picking Finn Russell. Yes, there is an abundance of size, there has to be when taking the Springboks on in their own back yard. But, Gatland knows that to beat South Africa you need more than just size.

The surprise omissions are perhaps headed by Lions’ legends Jonathan Davies and Johnny Sexton. Surprise, as they had not been discussed widely as falling off the favourites list. So too, Kyle Sinckler and James Ryan would also consider themselves unlucky not to make the plane.

On the flipside, Sam Simmonds is a hugely exciting pick, as is the selection of wonderkid Louis Rees-Zammit.

Simmonds and Russell head the x-factor list

This observer thought that Sam Simmonds was a chance and fair play to Gatland for taking a punt. It is well known how Simmonds is viewed by Eddie Jones and this is a deserved selection for a special player. On the hard grounds of South Africa, Simmonds could be a crucial player in swinging the series the Lions’ way. Conversely, it means that there is no place for Billy Vunipola (who has struggled for consistency over the last 12 months).

Rob Baxter Backs Sam Simmonds To Keep Pushing For England Selection
Sam Simmonds of Exeter scores during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Johnny Sexton was the unlucky one in the number ten jumper. Owen Farrell’s reputation and versatility have more than likely gotten him the nod, just. In that role, Finn Russell is a man to go to if the Lions needs to chase a game and possibly a series decider. He had to go and his impact possibly off the bench is crucial, probably alongside a certain Exeter number eight.

Daly, Farrell and Lawes need to justify selections

England has contributed 11 players, some would say, fortunately. Picking the centres must have been a challenge, highlighted by Jonathan Davies not going for a third tour. Elliot Daly is not in form but no one can discount his versatility and pedigree at this level. He needs to lay down a marker in the first few games. Owen Farrell’s form has been well documented but again, like Daly, his ability at this level is unquestioned.

The popular thought will be ‘whether the likes of Farrell and Daly can hit the ground running’.

Inevitably, there were some tight calls in this squad. Courtney Lawes’ physicality will be important despite missing most of the last 6 months with injury. It remains to be seen whether he can get back to the required playing level before he gets to South Africa.

Bundee Aki, Chris Harris, and Jack Conan headline the surprise picks. Aki’s physicality will soften the blow of losing George North and the injured Manu Tuilagi. Henry Slade and Jonathan Davies are left behind as a result.

Chris Harris’ excellence in the 2021 Six Nations has been rewarded especially his defensive capabilities and organisation. And Jack Conan is also an interesting pick, and he was dynamic against England to round off the Six Nations and impress the decision makers as well as Lions coach Warren Gatland..

James Ryan, Jonathan Davies, and Kyle Sinckler surprise ommissions

12 months ago James Ryan was a very viable starter to accompany Maro Itoje in the second row. He will come again but a tough Six Nations campaign mixed in with some injury problems has cost him. Jonny Hill is a surprise selection but whose size and engine have impressed the Lions management. He has perhaps shunted Ryan into the reserves.

Jonathan Davies (as mentioned at the top of the article) is the shock. The injury toll he has experienced over the last few years has caught up with him. It is a big call to leave him out given his excellence in the Lions shirt.

Kyle Sinckler is another tough call. Gatland was clearly not impressed by England’s front five in the 2021 Six Nations. Sinckler was still one of England’s best especially his ability to play long minutes and contribute around the park. Ellis Genge, Will Stuart and Beno Obano are also surplus to requirements.

Scottish form rewarded (and rightly so)

Scotland has eight players picked and rightly so. To win away in England and France is a huge step up for Gregor Townsend’s team. Jamie Ritchie, George Turner and Jonny Gray were unlucky not to be picked as well. Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson lead the possible starters and of course Finn Russell. Townsend’s role within the management team will help sculpt Lions coach Warren Gatlands’ attacking formations.

Duhan van der Merwe is an interesting selection. There is no question what he offers as a ball carrier. His power and ability to attract defenders will help against the Springboks. Though there has to be a question mark over his defence and the pressure of being an expat South African in a Lions jumper. Van der Merwe gets in probably at the expense of either Jonny May, Keith Earls and Jack Nowell (who are all not heading to South Africa).

Lions coach Warren Gatland has got his selection right

Warren Gatland has laid out his intent to the Springboks with this squad selection. He wants to be confrontational and physical but he also has a sprinkling of x-factor that should take on the Springboks. Gatland has gone for a big midfield to negate the influence of the Springboks huge physical presence in the 10/12/13 channels. By contrast Handré Pollard, Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende are big men too, who need to be stopped on the gain line.

Bundee Aki shapes up as a key man for the Lions in countering the Springbok physicality in the backline. It is a big ask but Aki could play out a Scott Gibbs style role in the summer.

Don’t discount the characters that make up this squad as well. Players like Aki, Jamie George and Stuart Hogg are great personalities that will mix nicely. Alun Wyn Jones and Owen Farrell will lead from the front in terms of intensity. Yes, there are players who are unlucky not to make the squad but that is the beauty of the Lions. Injuries will inevitably happen before the plane departs meaning that fringe players still have a chance of going.

One thing is for sure, this series is going to be huge, fans or no fans.

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