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Gatland beefs up his Lions but chops Scots and Hartley

20 April

Warren Gatland unveiled his Lions squad on Wednesday and, as is the way when it comes to selecting the best of the bunch from four nations, it was met with applause and outrage in equal measure.

The overall reaction was positive to a squad that Gatland chose to expand from 37 players to 41, a nod to the severity of an itinerary that encompasses ten matches in five weeks against the world's strongest rugby nation. England have the most representatives with 16 players, then Wales with 12, Ireland 11 and there are just two Scots.

Unsurprisingly the indignation was keenest in Scotland and with some justification given that they beat Ireland and Wales in this season's Six Nations. For the first time since the 1908 Lions tour, there will be no Scottish forwards in the touring party, with wing Tommy Seymour and full-back Stuart Hogg the only Scots to make the cut.

There was also a degree of displeasure south of the border with England captain Dylan Hartley missing out – it's the third successive Lions tour for which the captain of England has failed to win selection – while there was also no place for second-row Joe Launchbury, one of the outstanding performers of the Six Nations with two man-of-the-match awards to his name.

There was little controversy surrounding Gatland's choice of captain, however, with Wales flanker Sam Warburton handed the honour for the second consecutive tour. "Sam is a great player, an outstanding leader and a winning Lions captain, " said Gatland. "We believe that Sam’s experience and leadership qualities make him an obvious choice as captain. He has earned the respect of his peers and coaches through his resilience, tenacity and hard work."

Asked to explain the absence of Hartley, who misses out although his England understudy, Saracens hooker Jamie George, is on the plane to New Zealand, Gatland said: "I think it was a discussion that Dylan’s done a great job for England since he started captaining the team, but we felt like we couldn’t leave out Jamie George. Rory Best [Ireland] and Ken Owens [Wales] had great Six Nations as well... Dylan is very unlucky not to be in the squad but somebody else would have been very unlucky if he had been included."

Saying that he and his fellow selectors had had "some lively discussions" about which players to pick, the New Zealand-born Gatland explained why he had enlarged his squad to 41 players. "We know how tough it will be – this is the toughest tour. In previous tours the midweek games tended to be a little easier but when you look at the quality of the opposition we’re facing in midweek it’s going to be hugely challenging. That’s why we’ve taken a few extra players than we did in 2013. We just needed to make sure we have the depth and quality in the squad to make sure we can handle the quality of the sides we’re coming up against."

The unveiling of the squad was received with polite enthusiasm in New Zealand, and a distinct lack of foreboding. "A Lions squad that has equal parts conservatism, boldness, adventure and graft," said Gregor Paul of the New Zealand Herald. "It all looks so good for the Lions, except for one missing piece perhaps. Their squad lacks creative, intuitive footballers with the skills and imagination to ignite their attacking game... without that touch of class and creativity, they might be going home with plenty to think about."

The bookies certainly think so with William Hill making New Zealand white-hot favourites to win the series at 1-4, with a 3-0 series win for them priced at 4-5.

British and Irish Lions squad

Backs: Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben T’eo (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)

Forwards: Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales, capt)

Warren Gatland reveals the Lions to tame New Zealand

19 April

The wait is nearly over. At midday today Warren Gatland will announce his 37-man British & Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand in June and July.

There was a time when Lions tours were fairly low-key affairs, but that was before Sky Sports got involved in the 1997 series to South Africa.

Martin Johnson's British and Irish tourists won that series 2-1 and ever since the Lions have grown from a rugby team to a global brand on the back of television hype that at times borders on hysteria.

The fact that this year the Lions are heading to New Zealand makes the ten-match trip even more attractive to the media and sponsors. The world champions against the northern hemisphere's finest - what could be easier to market?

There is a problem, however, an inconvenient statistic buzzing around like a fly on the end of a Lion's nose; namely that in 12 tours of New Zealand spanning some 113 years the Lions have won just one series, a 2-1 victory in 1971.

They came close in 1993, losing the third and final Test after levelling the series in the second match, but the last time they visited New Zealand, the tourists were humbled 3-0, a humiliation that included a 48-18 drubbing in Wellington, the only occasion the Lions have leaked more than 40 points in a Test.

That was a squad with a preponderance of Englishmen and coached by another in Clive Woodward. The trick Gatland must pull off this time around is finding the right balance in his squad. It shouldn't be too hard for a man who was born in New Zealand and who has coached Ireland and Wales, while also enjoying a successful stint at London Wasps.

Gatland was in charge four years ago, when he steered the Lions to a 2-1 victory against Australia, the first time the tourists had won a series since that 1997 victory in South Africa.

But New Zealand are an altogether tougher opponent than Australia. Beaten just once in their past 22 matches - Ireland's historic win in Chicago in November - the All Blacks have talent all over the park. The Lions have talent, too, but can Gatland mould a winning team between now and the first Test in Auckland on 24 June?

The first name to be announced by Gatland later today will be the captain, with two Welshmen in lock Alun Wyn Jones and flanker Sam Warburton the favourites for the job, although question marks remain about the former's fitness. Gatland knows the pair well through his time coaching Wales but are both men guaranteed to start the Test series on current form?

Second row is one of the most fiercely contested positions with the English trio of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis all likely to push Jones for a place in the starting XV, as are the Irish pair of Iain Henderson and Donnacha Ryan, and Scotland's Richie Gray. Same goes for the back-row, another area of strength for the tourists, with Warburton likely to come under pressure for a starting spot from Ireland's Sean O'Brien and CJ Stander, and Wales's Justin Tipuric.

According to several newspapers, notable omissions from Gatland's squad will include the England trio of Joe Launchbury, Jonathan Joseph (who scored a hat-trick of tries in the thrashing of Scotland last month) and fly-half George Ford. For the moment that remains conjecture but, as the Daily Mail says, at high noon today "feverish speculation will give way to frenzied reaction".

Sam Warburton injury unlikely to affect Gatland Lions decision

12 April

Sam Warburton, the frontrunner for the captaincy of the British and Irish Lions for the tour of New Zealand this summer, is unlikely to play again this season after suffering knee ligament damage.

The Cardiff Blues flanker and Wales skipper is expected to be out for six weeks, but should be fit for the tour, which starts at the end of May.

The news comes a week before coach Warren Gatland names his squad for the daunting trip to New Zealand, but it's not clear whether the injury will affect his decision over the captaincy. Indeed, it may already have been made.

Paul Rees of The Guardian says that in 2013 "Warburton received a fortnight's notice before the announcement" that he would lead the squad in Australia.

The situation could be seen as a positive, provided there are no complications with Warburton's recovery, says Owen Slot of The Times. "A layoff now ensures that he will go into the tour fresh," he says.

"It might not be ideal to have a tour captain attempting to rediscover match fitness but it is unlikely that this injury will influence Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, in his captaincy decision, which will be announced when the squad is revealed next Wednesday.

"In any case, the other frontrunner to lead the touring side is Alun Wyn Jones, the Wales lock, and he is in a similar situation: dealing with injury, almost certain to be fit to tour but unlikely to play again before the tour starts."

The injury may "disrupt the pre-tour preparations", says Gavin Mairs of the Daily Telegraph. But it is "unlikely that the setback will alter Gatland's selection plans unless there are any further complications".

Stuart Barnes of Sky Sports adds that Warburton will have time to regain his form during the early stage of the tour.

"From Gatland's perspective, what he has got to do now is gauge the degree of risk with the injury," he says. "It is not about when Warburton is fit to go, it is about the first Test – he has still probably got five or six weeks."

Lions Tour 2017: Jones, Warburton and Farrell in captaincy frame

21 March

With the Six Nations finished for another year, opinion is split over the quality of the fare served up by the home nations with just under a month to go until the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand.

Pundits have been mulling over their picks for months, but it falls to coach Warren Gatland to make the final decision on 19 April. 

The problem, says Stuart Barnes of The Times, is that the rugby "fell short of the standards needed to scare New Zealand".

The quality of play from the home nations was not "remotely in the vicinity for which we hoped," he says, and the performances of key players fluctuated from week to week.

"The 'Lions selections' that have run and changed regularly in newspapers will have proved thoroughly bamboozling to most readers," adds Barnes. "Every week has been a churn where players who went into the weekend as likely candidates came out looking like last week’s dirty laundry... Home advantage was the obvious difference between a winning, moderate and poor campaign. That is a big worry for the Lions."

But others are more positive. "We have just enjoyed one of the finest Six Nations tournaments for years," says Dan Jones of the London Evening Standard.

He also addresses the question of who will captain the squad taking on the mighty All Blacks:  "For what it's worth, my back of a plane-ticket starting Lions XV includes the following men whom you could collectively call candidates: Rory Best, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell. Five big hitters, winners and, to use the unavoidable Lions vernacular, Test Match Animals."

Jones settles on back-row Warburton because of his close relationship with the coach.

Another Welshman gets the nod from Robert Kitson in The Guardian. He picks Alan Wyn Jones "on the basis Sam Warburton seems less burdened since relinquishing the Wales role". 

Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton "might be an outside bet but Gatland will surely prefer a forward", adds the journalist. "Dylan Hartley? As Chris Robshaw discovered four years ago, leading England brings no guarantee of a Lions passport."

The one certainty is that the tourists will need a "steely core", he says.

Gatland himself told Sky Sports that England back Owen Farrell is "firmly in the mix" for the role of captain, but complained the issue of who will lead the squad had become an "obsession".

He also hinted that he wanted a captain who would be certain of a place in the side, which could spell trouble for Jones and Warburton, who face competition at lock and flanker, while Farrell has the versatility to play at fly-half or centre.


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