What makes a British and Irish Lions tour so special? The players involved are the best of the best. There are no passengers on the bus heading towards the Lions first test squad selection. Everyone can make the test team and that is why the media love speculating the matchday 23.
Announced days ago, deciphering the who, why, and how is now up for debate. Looking back on the last three tours, however, shows a familiar patttern. One that early games establish – though, none many really want to play in some. Especially in the final warm-up game. It can be seen as the ‘filler’ before the senior men are readied for Saturday’s key fixture.
Only three players in the last three tours have played in the final warm-up game and have started in the first test. Is it impossible? No – as shown by the shock omission and elevation of men like Ali Priceelevation of men like Ali Price
While they can be found, examples are like gold dust.
Lions first Test squad selection follows Tour pattern
Gatland knows his test side weeks in advance of the Springboks matches but, there is always one or two players who ‘rip up the test squad selection’ script book. Not that he chooses himself.
His band of selectors and assistant coaches are thoroughly studying the last minutes of every rugby game on tour. Data that on occasion, influences the run-on group.
2009 Tour to South Africa
This was the first tour Gatland was involved in as a coach. Even though he was not the head coach, he would have been heavily involved in selection. The final warm-up game came just four days before the first test meaning, preparation for the first test would have been well underway. The players themselves had not given up hope though, with an impressive 20-8 win over the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
Ugo Monye was the only player to score that day with the other coming via a penalty try. Guess who ended up starting the first test? Ugo Monye. Coincidence? I think not.
Donncha O’Callaghan also backed up the mid-week game as he forced his way onto the bench for the first test.
2013 Tour to Australia
The final midweek game came against the Brumbies, and again, four days before the first test. In this game, Ben Youngs played 59 mins which was enough to grab a test bench-spot in Brisbane. The Lions lost the game 14-12 which highlighted the importance that midweek momentum can be, to someone on the test fringes.
This was the first loss on tour, so it came as no surprise no one was rewarded with a starting test spot. However, many argue that Gatland in 2013, more than any other tour, had his test side in mind before the plane even left. Would a big performance have even mattered?
2017 Tour to New Zealand
The opposite happened in Hamilton four days before the first test against the All Blacks. A nearly perfect Lion’s performance resulted in a 34-6 win over the Chiefs. Both Elliot Daly and Liam Williams impressed and managed to start the first test off the back of it. Both men then played in all three tests.
It just shows how the final midweek game before the test series is far from a dead rubber! Test spots are always up for grabs.
Added to the fact if the first Test goes wrong – as it did in New Zealand – then midweek reinforcements can come in for the second test.
2021 Tour to South Africa
Covid bubbles, no fans, and a condensed fixture list. The Lions Tour this year is like no other therefore it is unfair to compare the pattern of selections. First, there is a week between the last warm-up game and the first test, rather than the usual four days.
Second, due to self-isolation and injuries, the so-called ‘guaranteed starters’ who didn’t feature against South Africa A are now starting the first test. This includes the miraculous recovery of Alun Wyn Jones, Stuart Hogg biding his time in isolation, and Robbie Henshaw’s senior position.
Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ali Price, and Jack Conan are the three outsiders who stood out in the win over the Stormers and have been rewarded with Test starts. Gatland has clearly taken inspiration from the success of Liam Williams and Elliot Daly in 2017, and has picked players on form.
The pattern emerges not only in the Gatland’s Lions era, it was evident with Sir Ian McGeechan too. His term also introduced the rotation of players, the modern schedule, and the professional approach to player welfare and sports science. All factors in use then, and developed more so today to help the tourists to meet the challenge of the opening Test of this massive enterprise.
Lions first Test squad selection shows match-form is rewarded
Overall, it is the most changes ever ahead of the first Test, but at the same time, Gatland throughout the whole tour purposely has kept his selection cards close to his chest [no pun intended, considering the brouhaha of a leaked Lions first test squad only adding to the Drama involved].
True, patterns of past tours do give examples of some who have put there hand up for selection. Have worked hard, and are duly rewarded. To beat South Africa, its always going to take something special, and being unpredictable in selection is clearly Gatland’s approach.
Will the risk pay off? Only time will tell.
South Africa v British and Irish Lions – Cape Town (first Test)
“Main photo credit”
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