Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
The 2013 Lions team:
Full-backs: L Halfpenny, S Hogg, R Kearney
Wings: G North, A Cuthbert, T Bowe, S Maitland
Centres: B O'Driscoll, M Tuilagi, J Roberts, J Davies
Fly-halves: J Sexton, O Farrell
Scrum-halves: C Murray, M Phillips, B Youngs
Props: G Jenkins, C Healy, M Vunipola, A Jones, D Cole, M Stevens
Hookers: D Hartley, R Hibbard, T Youngs
Locks: I Evans, R Gray, AW Jones, P O'Connell, G Parling
Back row: T Croft, T Faletau, J Heaslip, D Lydiate, S O'Brien, J Tipuric, S Warburton (capt).
An Ulsterman's Rage
I had prepared myself for the disappointment of not seeing Andrew Trimble’s name in the Lions squad, which I genuinely believe to be a travesty, but Warren Gatland still managed to spring some unpleasant surprises amongst what was a, mostly, quite predictable squad announcement.
Warren Gatland didn’t spring many surprises in his Lions squad announcement this morning but, boy, what surprises they were. Regrettably, all leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
I suspect that fellow Ulster fans will be incredulous at the selection of the Fez digit muncher. The unpleasant Kiwi went to the trouble of twice in the space of one week demonstrating beyond all doubt that he is not fit to lace Rory Best’s boots. The Heineken Cup double-header between Ulster and the Saints had been dubbed a play-off for the Lions number 2 jersey but turned out to be an embarrassing mis-match.
Yes, Rory has not had his finest few months, but much of the blame for Ulster and Ireland’s lineout woes cannot be pinned on him. Indeed, his stats are not that bad and I am sure that with Parling, O’Connell and Gray to aim at, he would look like an athletic version of Phil The Power. However, his general play has been of a consistently outstanding standard. Can the same be said of the (fairly uninspiring)Lions captain? Or Richie Gray? So to not select the best British and Irish hooker of the last 3-4 seasons (not my words, but those of Paul Wallace) on the evidence of a couple of average days lineout work seems extraordinary. To do so whilst selecting Dylan Hartley is unbelievable and has left at least one Ulster fan seething.
I also have difficulty in understanding the selections of Stevens and Croft. The Sarries tight-head, cum loosehead, equally likely to give a way a penalty on either side of the scrum, seems very lucky to get into the side ahead of Euan Murray and Mike Ross. Croft, for all his lineout skills and rangy running, just lacks the bulk to be a credible 6 or lock. Again, Ulster fans will find this hard to fathom, given the ease with which the hard-tackling Paddy Wallace Dumped him into touch during Ulster’s demolition of Leicester last season. In the same match, the sight of Ben Youngs imploding and weeping on the sidelines still makes one wonder whether he is really Lions material.
Youngs’ international half-back partner, Owen Farrell, must also consider himself lucky to make the plane after a very poor display against Toulon, in which all of his limitations as a fly-half were exposed. Yes he can kick, but 0.5p will almost certainly start so that is a luxury the Lions don’t require. Ian Madigan’s stats from the tee are at least as good as Farrell’s, and the Leinster man can also pass, break the line and tackle. Unbelievably, Farrell managed to miss 7 tackles against Ulster, a figure that would have ROG-haters foaming at the mouth if the Munster legend ever performed so poorly. Indeed the great man has been in far better form that Farrell in recent months and would, in my opinion, have been a better bet.
I’m really glad that Rob Kearney got the nod. He is a class player and will let no one down. He has not reached the heights of last season but it’s hard to ignore a Lion with such strong credentials. It’s a real shame the same rules didn’t apply to Rory Best.
The Unlucky Lions
There are some very lucky men in Gatland's selection and some very unlucky names left out. And there are others who many will cry over but when viewed a little more objectively might not be as unlucky as one might think.
National allegiences aside, Chris Robshaw is the big name to be left out, omitted in favour of a sworn statement from Dan Lydiate's doctor and a the hope of seeing the good Tom Croft. Robshaw might not have proven himself to be the greatest tactical captain on the planet but put him in a white jersey and the man puts in a serious shift. In both the Autumn internationals and the Six Nations just passed he finished among the top in tackles, carries and offloads. Kelly Brown too will feel unlucky, the Scottish captain having done a very good Robshaw impression defensively.
Among the locks, assuming that Nathan Hines wasn't considered because of the French league season the man next in line was probably Donnacha Ryan. He'd proven an able deputy in the absence of Paul O'Connell for Ireland and will hopefully make the standby list, although he'll have to shade Joe Launchbury to do so. Richie Gray has been a ghost of himself this season even before injury and is going based on memories and potential. Wild card standby candidate: Jim Hamilton.
In the front frow Matt Stevens is the big surprise in the squad having retired from international rugby last year. The roly-poly prop can play both sides of the scrum but whether he'd be a more effective tourist than Mike Ross is open to question.
And then there's Rory Best. Gutted for the man. But if one takes a step back the outcry over his exclusion might not have been so vocal had the replacement been someone other than the not uncontroversial Dylan Hartley. Had it instead been Matthew Rees or even Ross Ford chosen instead, some might instead have pointed (not unreasonably) to Ulster's lineout woes (75% success rate in the Heineken Cup this season, worst in the competition) and Ireland's struggles in the same area. Best is a serious operator around the field especially on opposition ball and perhaps a place on the standby list will still await.
Take a bow, Conor Murray. Not too long ago based on form his test place was being seriously questioned but after a few big performances he's played himself into the Lions squad. The ommission of Danny Care is interesting as his electric pace makes him an interesting bench option.
Where fly-half is concerned Warren Gatland has said that he asked Jonny Wilkinson whether he could commit to the whole tour and the England veteran gave him an honest no. Hopefully that will not extend to his declining a standby spot because in the touring party only Sexton and Farrell have experience at the position.
In the centres it would have been wonderful to see Billy Twelvetrees. His ability to play a distributing twelve role as well as cover fly half would have been a nice card to have in the deck. As it is, if Sexton goes down injured one would have to question the creative ability inside O'Driscoll no matter who's selected.
Simon Zebo misses out in the back three positions along with Tim Visser and a host of Englishmen: Chris Ashton, Mike Brown, Alex Goode and Christian Wade. The minor shock inclusion is Sean Maitland with Rob Kearney counting his lucky stars that he had such a wonderous Lions tour to South Africa in 2009.
The standby list will be fascinating.
In midfield will it be the old stager Wilkinson or solid Dan Biggar? Or the more creative talents of James Hook, Ian Madigan or Freddie Burns?
Danny Care at scrum half or the versatility of Greig Laidlaw?
Simon Zebo or one of the Englishmen to cover a wing or full back injury?
Will Mike Ross do a John Hayes and arrive out late with some veteran heft, perhaps with Rory Best having stayed over at Phil "The Power" Taylor's house for a month?
How about Iain Henderson as a late, massively surprising injury replacement?
Whatever happens we're only at the beginning of a long couple of rugby months and it's going to be wonderful.
Oh, and who were my Lions? Well below is my own Lions 37 that I'd chosen last night sometime between the wine and the port. This went up both on Twitter and on Murray Kinsella's blog where himself and Cian Treacy had done some good Lions-eve stirring.
Front Rows: Best, Youngs, Hibbard, Healy, Jenkins, Vunipola, Jones, Cole, Ross
Locks: O’Connell, Evans, Jones, Hines, Ryan
Back Rows: Warburton, Tipuric, Robshaw, O’Brien, Heaslip, Faletau
Halfbacks: Phillips, Care, Laidlaw
Fly Halves: Sexton, Wilkinson, Madigan
Centres: Twelvetrees, O’Driscoll, Roberts, Tuilagi
Back Three: North, Cuthbert, Bowe, Brown, Halfpenny, Kearney, Hogg
For those with the appropriate mental agility to check the above names against Warren Gatland's 37 named at 11am this morning by Andy Irvine, we have only 26 names in common. One of us has won a Six Nations and is the Lions coach; the other finished off the port and hit the hay.