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Warren Gatland Picks Nine Irishmen In Hypothetical Lions XV

Warren Gatland Picks Nine Irishmen In Hypothetical Lions XV
By Eoin Harrington Updated

Warren Gatland has picked a hypothetical Lions squad, and there is room for Johnny Sexton and eight other Irishmen in the starting XV.

The massive Irish selection no doubt has plenty to do with the recent test series win in New Zealand, but speaks volumes about the level of Ireland in the European game.

The inclusion of Sexton is particularly eyebrow-raising, given the out-half was left out of Gatland's Lions squad for the South Africa tour just last year.

Johnny Sexton: Warren Gatland regrets leaving Irish out half out of South Africa tour

Warren Gatland was tasked with picking a hypothetical 23-man matchday Lions squad in his latest column for the Telegraph this week.

Gatland has taken charge of the last three test series for the Lions and infamously left Johnny Sexton out of last year's tour of South Africa.

Sexton played a crucial role in this month's historic test series win for Ireland in New Zealand. Off the back of that series win Gatland not only selected Sexton for his hypothetical Lions squad but also admitted that he sometimes regrets leaving the Irishman out of last year's touring party.

Gatland said:

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Quite simply he has earned the right to be there, even at the age of 37. I think Marcus Smith is something special but if I want to win a game next week, Johnny has to start. You can't take away the impact he has had over the last year.

In South Africa I was concerned about his injury record and whether he could get through the tour, and I still probably ask myself now whether it was the right decision to leave him at home.

It's a fascinating admission from Gatland, especially as his omission of Sexton last summer was so divisive among rugby fans and pundits.

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Sexton has been one of the leading players of European rugby this season, however, and was once again central to all of Leinster and Ireland's play.

16 July 2022; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland kicks a penalty during the Steinlager Series match between the New Zealand and Ireland at Sky Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Gatland's full squad includes a whopping 11 Irish players off the back of a hugely successful season and summer series. Nine of those players make Gatland's starting XV.

The squad in full is:

15 Freddie Steward (England), 14 Josh Adams (Wales), 13 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), 12 Owen Farrell (England), 11 James Lowe (Ireland)10 Johnny Sexton (Ireland), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park (Ireland); 1 Ellis Genge (England), 2 Jamie George (England), 3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)4 James Ryan (Ireland), 5 Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), 6 Courtney Lawes (England), 7 Josh van der Flier (Ireland), 8 Caelan Doris (Ireland)

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16 Dan Sheehan (Ireland)17 Andrew Porter (Ireland), 18 Xander Fagerson (Scotland), 19 Maro Itoje (England), 20 Taulupe Faletau (Wales), 21 Ali Price (Scotland), 22 Marcus Smith (England), 23 Jack Nowell (England)

There are some fascinating choices from Gatland. The decision to not only select Johnny Sexton, but throw him in the starting XV, speaks volumes about the impact the Leinster and Ireland 10 has had over the past year.

James Ryan is also included in the starting XV at 4, despite missing out on Gatland's Lions squad last summer.

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The selection of Caelan Doris at 8 over Wales' Taulupe Faletau is also a massive vote of confidence in the talented Leinster back-row.

Gatland also addressed one of his most controversial selections in the article.

Speaking on his biggest regrets in coaching, he said that his decision to omit Brian O'Driscoll from the matchday 23 for the final Lions test in 2013 was the toughest call he has had to make throughout his career. He did, however, assert that his entire coaching team backed him up:

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I know I have not always got it right. Some of my selections I still turn over in my head to this day. At the end of the day, selection is just opinion and getting the dynamics right for a Lions tour is one where the process never ends.

My toughest decision as a Lions coach was omitting Brian O'Driscoll from the third test against Australia in 2013. However, as a coaching team, we were all in agreement that it was the right call.

I knew the impact it would have. I also knew it was not going to make me popular. But you are paid to make the tough calls. What I didn't expect was the extent of the vitriol directed at me personally.

It's fascinating to think about what the next Lions squad will look like but, given the next tour will not happen until 2025, it is unlikely that Johnny Sexton will be among the touring party.

It remains to be seen whether Warren Gatland will take charge of that Australian tour.

SEE ALSO: Five Irish Players Make BBC Sport's Rugby Weekly Summer Test XV

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