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Stephen Ferris reacts to Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad picks

| 09.05.2021

What a crazy couple of weeks it has been in the lead up to the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad.

European rugby has dominated our TV screens, and with a few other club games being played, the chances for some of the Lions bolters to show what they could do dried up.

Leinster went down to La Rochelle in the big semi-final clash of the Champions Cup. Ulster went down in the big semi-final of  the Challenge Cup. And now we have the announcement of the Lions squad just four or five days later.

Some of the Irish rugby supporters have been very apprehensive this week due to some of their picks maybe playing themselves out of the Lions squad, rather than cementing their place in it. And on the flip side, maybe a few Leicester Tigers fans might have been hoping for a surprise inclusion of one or two of their players.

Ruthless Gatland

Some huge calls have been made by Warren Gatland and his coaching staff, and after the ruthless approach he adopted by dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the 3rd test in 2013, I think everyone knows that Gatland isn’t a man for giving players the swan song they maybe deserve.

The squad of 36 quickly became a squad of 37, maybe this was due to one player that the coaches felt they couldn’t leave at home and they have decided to get him on the plane. But one thing is for sure, this squad of 37 will quickly turn into a squad of 44/45 players by the time the test matches come around.

The attritional battle the Lions will have on their hands week in and week out over the next couple of months will be staggering. It’s not only the matches, it’s also the intensity of training because everyone wants to be that test starter come the end of July.

Speaking from experience, keeping yourself fit and fresh is a challenge in itself.

British and Irish Lions squad

Here’s the squad in full in case you haven’t seen the announcement.

Props: Tadhg Furlong, Zander Fagerson, Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Andrew Porter, Rory Sutherland

Hookers: Ken Owens, Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie

Second rows: Alun Wyn Jones (c), Maro Itoje, Courtney Laws, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill

Back rows: Tom Curry, Hamish Watson, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Jack Conan, Sam Simmonds

Half backs: Conor Murray, Ali Price, Gareth Davies, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell, Dan Biggar

Centres: Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Chris Harris

Back three: Josh Adams, Duhan Van Der Merwe, Louis Rees-Zammit, Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams

Jonny Sexton misses out

Of course this is a very strong squad and everyone will have their own opinions on who should have made it. But let’s start with the highest profile name that’s not on that list, Jonny Sexton.

Warren Gatland had his stats all worked out on Sexton before he was asked any questions from the media about why he didn’t make it. The stats say that Jonny hasn’t played 3 consecutive weekends in a row since 2018, and that his durability isn’t good enough to make this tour.

Head knocks, hamstring issues and a few other injuries have kept him on the side lines for large parts over the last couple of seasons, and Warren Gatland isn’t willing to take a risk on him. Yet.

Several players also unlucky to miss out

Some other names that I feel are very unlucky to miss out are Kyle Sinckler, James Ryan, Henry Slade, and Jonny May.

A tourist in 2017 for the Lions and a test match replacement, Sinckler must be wondering what he has done wrong to not be included. He is playing really well for Bristol Bears in the Premiership and has proven during the Six Nations that he can nail down a scrum against some of the very best, so what is it that’s missing?

I don’t have an exact answer, but maybe it’s his temperament and how he plays on the edge most weeks. Although I kind of like that about Sinckler, and if I was selecting the squad he definitely would have been in it.

James Ryan has been struck down with injuries at the wrong time. And it’s all about timing when it comes to being selected as a Lion. James won the Grand Slam in 2018, won over 20 games on the bounce, and was being touted as the next Paul O’Connell for Ireland due to his presence on the pitch.

However things have taken a slight u-turn due to concussions and other small injuries which have limited his game time and led to a slight dip in form. No doubt if Ryan had pulled off a man of the match performance against La Rochelle last weekend he would have made it, but unfortunately for him that did not transpire.

Injuries can change things

Slade and May I’m sure will both be bitterly disappointed in missing out, and they just have to focus now on staying fit in case they get the call if there is an injury.

I can remember back in 2009 when Alan Quinlan ended up getting a ban just before the squad met up in London. Tom Croft took his place and six weeks later Croft started the 1st test match against South Africa. So there is hope for the likes of Slade and May if a space opens up.

Lions announcement day always throws up some controversial inclusions. The biggest for me was hearing Bundee Aki’s name being read out as he has played very little international rugby over the last few months, and the number one centre partnership for Ireland in many people’s eyes is Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose.

Yes, it is a shock to me, but it’s a selection I can totally understand because Bundee is a top quality player who will be relishing the physical war ahead of him. You need power, energy, aggression, athleticism to live with the current World Champions, and Bundee Aki covers all these pretty well. The last Connacht player to represent the Lions was Ciaran Fitzgerald in 1983, so I’m sure it was a proud moment for the Irish province when his name was read out.

I love the drama squad selection day throws up. Bolters… shoe-ins…possibles… maybes… it’s a day that will live long in my memory from 2009. Guys like Sam Simmonds, Jack Conan and Finn Russell thoroughly deserve their selection. I mentioned it before about timing, and these three lads have timed it to perfection with the way they have played over the last 12 months in particular.

Simmonds might not be liked by Eddie Jones because of the outside noise that has been gathering pace for Simmonds to be selected for England, but none of that matters now, he is a Lion, and no one can ever take that away from him. Will he start in the first test? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Playing for the Lions was highlight of my career

Representing the British and Irish Lions was absolutely the biggest highlight of my career. The pinnacle of anyone’s rugby journey in my opinion.

It’s like an experienced mountaineer who has a goal of climbing Everest. They have trained their whole life, travelled the world climbing different summits and spending endless hours in the gym to make sure their body is in peak physical condition to take on their dream.

The lads selected on this tour currently find themselves in Everest base camp. They know what is ahead of them to reach their summit of a series win in South Africa. There will be twists and turns and not everyone will make it, but one thing I do know from experience, is that the Lions’ roar will never be silenced. LIONS, LIONS, LIONS.

Stephen

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