Warren Gatland has got it right.
I like the look and balance of the squad. The players are good enough to win the series, the challenge will be whether they can.
New Zealand at home are pretty much unbeatable. The statistics and a great deal of logic suggests a Lions win would be unlikely, but they have the best possible chance.
This is a talented squad of players. They have an opportunity to create a serious part of history against the best team in the world.
‘Two-thirds of the squad was already inked in’
The omissions from the squad are down to the level of competition for places. I am just glad it was Warren who had to do it and not me.
England captain Dylan Hartley’s absence was not a massive surprise, given the quality of what Gatland is left with at hooker in Rory Best, Ken Owens and Jamie George. Dylan said himself in the lead-up to the announcement that it would be a bonus if he was selected. I guess that was him preparing himself for the news.
Gatland will have different requirements from his hooker than Eddie Jones has with England. Personally it has to be disappointing but Hartley will be prepared for it and will be thinking ‘Argentina, here we come’ as England tour there this summer.
The second row must have been the most talked about selection of all. So many great players, performing at a high quality in the Six Nations and in other domestic and European competition. You could look at Scotland’s Jonny Gray and ask ‘how, on statistics alone, can he possibly be left out?’ Look at England lock Joe Launchbury and say ‘how can a player of his quality be left out?’ But look at who Gatland has picked in that position – Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes.
There were some who Gatland could not possibly leave out: Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, CJ Stander, Owen Farrell, George Kruis and Stuart Hogg to name a few – and there are more. At least two-thirds of the squad was inked in before selection.
‘Te’o could start the first Test’
There are a number of first-timers that will challenge guys that have been there before.
Jared Payne is seen as a slight surprise because he’s been injured.
Kyle Sinckler is a dynamic, powerful ball carrier. You have to beat the All Blacks by being confrontational. There is nothing better than smashing through defenders, running aggressively. Sinckler has the ability to produce that kind of form.
Ben Te’o’s power and the damage he does will fit Gatland’s style to a tee. His Welsh team was all about thrust, power and dominance. If Sonny Bill Williams starts, who knows him better than Te’o, who has played against him more than anyone in rugby league? I can comfortably see Te’o starting.
Gatland has in mind how he believes he can beat the All Blacks with the players he has available. Now he has selected those players who best fit that style. But he does also have players like Payne, Jonathan Joseph, Jack Nowell and Liam Williams who are not all smash and grab and bulk. There is some finesse and skill in that squad.
‘Warburton is tried and tested’
Sam Warburton carries some great credentials and is highly regarded and respected at international level.
His performances in this year’s Six Nations just got better and better, which got rid of any doubts over his performance.
His pedigree is first class, what he has won throughout his career to date stands up against some quality competition. He is proven, tried and tested. Hopefully he can lead them playing well and stay the course.
He plays in a position where he does get battered. He is likely to be at open-side flanker because another player in CJ Stander picks himself at blind-side. The All Blacks play with a great ferocity at the breakdown, Warburton knows that and I hope he is in a great position to withstand that for the series.
‘You need the right blend on tour’
When you put together a Lions squad you are not always thinking of the very best players, but also the best blend to tour for five to six weeks and who can get the best out of one another. What contribution can players make outside the game of rugby?
The form of a player goes a long way to determine if they make it. When there is a close decision to be made, the personality and character of a player can get them across the line and onto the tour.
None of these players had shocking seasons, not one does not deserve to be where they are. At one time or another they have shown world-class form.
We know some will get injured, some that are selected might not make it to the plane. I know on average six to eight replacements might make their way to New Zealand for the tour. Even those who have not made the official line-up will keep themselves ready.
‘Everyone has a chance of starting the first Test’
It is hard enough to choose the 41, let alone 23 for a match-day squad.
Jonathan Davies might not be in world-class form but he has a Lions pedigree. Some players move up a notch when they play for the Lions. Davies’ last tour against Australia in 2013 was sensational, Warren will believe he can get the best out of him again. But Davies will know he is in one hell of a fight to retain his Test jersey.
Alun Wyn Jones is not captain and he is not safe either. Everyone has a chance. As a virgin tourist or an established tourist, I always knew I had a chance and a threat of someone coming and taking your place.
People will think what chance does Peter O’Mahony have of starting in that Test team? I think he has every chance, just look at his performance in his last game against England. If he goes out and plays before the first Test with that kind of intensity and impact he will stand a chance.
Every player in that 41 has every chance of playing in the first Test. They are all high-quality international players.
The coach has a pre-determined idea of how he feels that squad will play, but that can evolve. We will see the shaping of the Test team evolve over the first few weeks. Certain players, no doubt, will play themselves into that Test team.
It will be fascinating to watch, brilliant for us as supporters. There is nothing better than watching players come through and pick themselves.
Guscott’s starting XV
I do think Sexton and Farrell will fight it out for the number 10 position. I don’t quite see Sexton and Farrell as a Test 10 and 12.
‘This is why you play rugby’
I got a late call-up because of an injury to Will Carling in 1989. I could not take the smile from my face for the rest of my career because of the opportunity to be part of something incredibly special.
You never want to stop going on Lions tours. It is one of the biggest parts of a rugby career if you get on a good one. I was fortunate to go on three enjoyable tours, which gave me fantastic experiences that will live with me forever.
Every time a Lions squad announcement is made, excitement courses through me. I relate to the players that are selected and what they are looking forward to. There are quite a few first-timers who will be delirious with excitement.
As a former Lion, I am envious of the opportunity these guys are are about to embark on. This is why you play rugby, to have these sorts of opportunities. It is mind-blowing. You will try and take it in your strike, but you want to explode. The key thing is keeping a lid on that explosion.
‘Balance of world rugby is changing’
The way to beat New Zealand is playing with super intensity, some fortune and a very low level of mistakes. It sounds obvious, but not many teams are able to do it.
Gatland and his coaches have to get their players at a level of intensity so they are looking forward to what they are facing, simmering but not boiling over.
Look at the intensity England played with last summer in Australia, the intensity Ireland took to Chicago. The intensity Wales took to New Zealand last year for 40 to 60 minutes. You combine all of that and you have got some serious intensity.
I think they’re going to be a tremendous squad. In 1993 we ran them to the last Test and then they put us away. In 2005 it was a non-contest, they were way too good. This time the balance is changing, we will see how far when they get there.
In times gone by, the New Zealand side had players that would walk into a world XV, but there aren’t many players who would do that now. That for me is world rugby balancing off.
It will be hard and tough, especially if they play their best players in the provincial games. But if I was part of the Lions squad I would want to face the Test players in the warm-up matches.
|Full Lions schedule|
|June 3 – Provincial Union Team, Whangarei|
|June 7 – Blues, Auckland|
|June 10 – Crusaders, Christchurch|
|June 13 – Highlanders, Dunedin|
|June 17 – Maori All Blacks, Rotorua|
|June 20 – Chiefs, Hamilton|
|June 24 – All Blacks, Auckland|
|June 27 – Hurricanes, Wellington|
|July 1 – All Blacks, Wellington|
|July 8 – All Blacks, Auckland|
The challenge is there and they have to rise to it. They are more than capable of giving a good account of themselves. Lions tours are one of adversity, you are not given much chance as a squad, your job is to earn the respect of a country and the only way to do that is by performing well and winning games.
They have a big opportunity to create some brilliant history.
To win would be sensational, as sensational as any series win in New Zealand in any Lions era. This is truly the biggest challenge of any Lions tour.
If I was part of that squad I would have high hopes of being successful. The question Gatland and his coaches will ask is ‘why can’t you win?’
Jeremy Guscott was speaking to BBC Sport’s Matthew Davis.
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