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Why Gatland has rolled the dice

Owain Jones

Warren Gatland called it his most difficult selection meeting in his four tours with the Lions and there was disbelief in some quarters that the likes of Chris Harris, Josh Adams and Taulupe Faletau had not even made the 23, while Tadhg Beirne and Liam Williams had made it only onto the bench but the Lions head coach is used to making tough decisions and he has stressed to the unfortunate players omitted that they may still have a chance in Tests 2 and 3.

For those who have been handed the opportunity, it represents the chance of a lifetime; to become a Lions legend.

15. Stuart Hogg

Why’s he been picked? After not making the Test team in 2013, and being poleaxed by Conor Murray in friendly-fire to send him home in 2017, Stuart Hogg must have thought he was jinxed to wear a Test shirt when he was forced to isolate after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid at the start of tour and forced to stay in isolation in Johannesburg, missing three games. His spritely showing against the Stormers, on the back of consistently strong form for Scotland and growing leadership skills have seen him picked. He has a howitzer of a boot on him and loves nothing more than leading a rearguard action with turf in front of him.

Risk factor (out of 5) 3

Hogg came into the tour under a slight cloud, after being dropped by his club coach, Rob Baxter, who instead preferred Jack Nowell for Exeter’s run-in. Given the Springboks are expected to pepper the back-three with bombs, he is not renowned as a peerless mid-air merchant and his defence has been found wanting at times during his career.

14. Anthony Watson

Why’s he been picked? Watson was one of England’s stronger performers during a disappointing Six Nations campaign and he has carried his form into tour. Gatland will admire his sparkling footwork that allows him to evade defenders but it is the hard work he has done on his aerial game that has secured him a Test place. Watson’s all-round game has seen him regularly play for Bath at full-back this season and his experience, he was a tourist in 2017, and error-free game have seen as a banker in the team.

Risk factor 1

Watson has come back from two Achilles injuries and with such a fast-twitch fibre athlete, muscle injuries are a constant worry. The England wing has few weaknesses but he will be feeling his way into his relationship with Stuart Hogg having not played together on tour.

13. Elliot Daly

Why’s he been picked? Four months ago, with brickbats ringing in his ears and calls for him to be dropped from England’s line-up occurring on a daily basis, Elliott Daly may have thought a starting spot in the Test dream was a pipe dream. Daly’s versatility has sometimes counted against him, but on a short, intense tour it plays to his strengths. The Saracens outside back can play with an 11, 13, 14 and 15 on his back but it is in the outside-centre channel that he has been picked to add some elan and a left-footed kicking game. Daly also has one of the biggest boots in world rugby, so if there are chances to slot a penalty from 50-60m, he will step-up.

Elliot Daly
Elliot Daly has shown his versatility and pace to squeeze past Chris Harris for the No 13 shirt (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Risk factor 4

Daly has had a rocky 18 months or so playing at full-back for England where his defensive positioning was exposed on numerous times, leading to a loss of confidence. His first-up tackling is also a little on the barn-door side at times and he can get overpowered but his obvious gifts, outside the robust Robbie Henshaw were too much to ignore. The Swiss Army knife of outside-backs.

12. Robbie Henshaw

Why’s he been picked? Henshaw was the standout midfielder in the Six Nations, which came off the back of an outstanding Autumn campaign for Ireland. At nearly 6ft 3in and over 16st, the former Connacht man has the heft to truck it up route one, but also the distribution skills to put outside backs into holes and the footwork step round defenders.

Risk factor 2

Henshaw picked up a hamstring injury in the game against Japan which ruled him out of the majority of the warm-up games before he proved his fitness against the Stormers. He was robust defensively, but it was a low-key return, with little of his attacking repertoire on show. His selection is based on his season-long excellence, rather than his recent form. 

11. Duhan van der Merwe

Why’s he been picked? Firstly, look at the size of him. He’s 6ft 4in and nearly 17st, a carbon copy physically to George North, and we know what damage he did in 2013. According to rugby statistician Russ Petty, the big South African, has carried for 463m over four games, beaten the most defenders (29) and scored five tries. This, as Warren Gatland was at pains to point out, was on top of being the top try scorer in the Six Nations. Van der Merwe has shown footwork, raw power and top-end speed to pull away from defenders. From a crowded pack, he has emerged as a genuine bolter in his first season of Test rugby.

Risk factor 4

There has been disquiet in certain quarters over van der Merwe’s suitability for the aerial onslaught the Springboks are about to throw his way. He is not viewed as an elite airborne defender and despite his bulk, he has also been shown as fallible defensively, both by getting caught narrow on the defensive edge and in the broken field. One final aspect is the fact he maybe targeted by his countrymen who will be sure to inform him why he’s playing for Scotland and not his country of birth. He knows what’s coming.

10. Dan Biggar

Why’s he been picked? Dan Biggar was the only member of Wales’ Six Nations winning squad in 2013 not to tour with the Lions. This sleight will no doubt have hurt him. In 2017, he performed commendably but could not break the Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton axis. He set a goal of not only making the Lions squad but making the Test team for 2021 and his selection is on merit. Outstanding for Wales during their title-winning Six Nations campaign, especially against France, his bravery in the air, defensive resolve, game management and ability to distribute to the wide channels – something he has improved working with Northampton’s Chris Boyd – have all led to Warren Gatland saying he was the outstanding candidate for the key 10 role. He seems perfectly suited to facing Handre Pollard.

Dan Biggar
Dan Biggar’s prowess in the air could be vital against the Springboks (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Risk factor 2

As a hugely competitive animal, Biggar has been known to let his emotions get the better of him on the pitch, when the game isn’t being bent to his will. It is something, he admits, he will have to manage. While he has improved his distribution, he has been stereotyped as a fly-half lacking the air of unpredictability that Finn Russell can bring to the game. 

9. Ali Price

Why’s he been picked? Scrum-half has been highlighted as a problem position for a good while, with no stand-out performer leading up to the tour. Price has seized his opportunity with his sharp service and tempo he brings to the game, and he has profited with Conor Murray looking ponderous and Gareth Davies being error-ridden in his few outings. His selection is another filed under form and not reputation.

Risk factor 4

Price will face one of the sternest challenges of his career coming up against the irrepressible Faf de Klerk who brings line-speed, aggression and a brilliant box-kicking game to the Springboks. If Price can live with the Sale Shark he will keep the shirt but he will have to play the perfect game. He has missed more tackles than his competitors for the 9 jersey and has been prone to the odd lapse in concentration which saw calls for Scott Steele to replace him at the recent Six Nations. Timing is everything, and Price has the opportunity of a lifetime.

8. Jack Conan

The Leinster and Ireland No 8 is another who has timed his run to the Test starting team to perfection. Caelan Doris was expected to fill the No 8 berth during the Six Nations, so CJ Stander packed down there and Conan managing one start for Ireland against England in the final game, where he scored before half-time. A month later, he was again over the whitewash against Exeter and with Billy Vunipola out-of-form, found himself in the Lions squad. Conan has nudged ahead of Taulupe Faletau and Sam Simmonds with a series of composed displays, where his athleticism, aplomb at the back of the lineout, and explosivity at the back of the scrum has seen him pick up Jamie Heaslip’s jersey from the 2013 tour.

Risk factor 3

Conan has been a slow-burn on the Test stage. He turns 29 next week but has only made 13 starts for Ireland. Detractors will say a lack of experience on the highest stage could count against him, but remember he has won a Grand Slam, Pro14s and a Champions Cup in 2018. He will know the spectre of Faletau will loom large over him if he doesn’t deliver.

7. Tom Curry

Why’s he been picked? At just 23, Tom Curry is already seen as one of the world’s best opensides, but he has had to raise his game to yet higher levels to stave off the challenge of Hamish Watson. Curry is physically powerful enough to play anywhere across the back row and his ball-carrying has been noticeable during the tour, where he has found himself with turf in front of him. The Sale Sharks man is also strong over the ball, powerful in the tackle and has improving ball-skills. On paper, he appears perfectly equipped to undergo the onslaught from the Springbok behemoths.

Tom Curry
Tom Curry has edged Hamish Watson in the race for the No 7 jersey with his power-packed style of play (Photo by MB Media/Getty Images)

Risk factor 2

Curry would admit he is not the finished article. There are subtleties that need refining. For example, there are times when he chooses to commit to the breakdown and gives away penalties, or he gets caught in possession and gets isolated, but these are minor points. If he can maintain his fitness, he is on the way to being an England great.

6. Courtney Lawes

Why he’s been picked? The most overused word in elite rugby is ‘physicality’, but it’s something Lawes has in spades. The Northampton Saint has had to modify his tackling technique somewhat in the current climate, but he is still effective in folding ball-carriers in two. One area Lawes has improved is his ball-carrying. He now regularly hits gaps around the fringes and has improved his offloading game. It is no co-incidence England had such a poor Six Nations campaign without the 86-cap back five player. Lawes will contest with the fellow 6ft 7in blindside Pieter Steph-Du-Toit for aerial supremacy at the back of the lineout and roam the broken-field looking for win the contact area.

Risk factor 3

Lawes was the last Lion to get picked after proving his fitness so late in the season. For so long, Tadhg Beirne was the critics choice to fill the No 6 shirt, for his prowess at the breakdown and ball-handling skills but Gatland has plumped for Lawes because of his experience and marginally more effective carrying game into contact. Lawes must be extra careful with his defensive game and try to avoid giving away penalties.

5. Alun Wyn Jones

Why’s he been picked? Rugby fans don’t agree on much, but there will be little dissent if Alun Wyn Jones is proclaimed a modern great.  There was little hope of completing a fourth tour against Japan after coming off injured in the 7th minute but lady luck was looking down on Jones and he proved his fitness against the Stormers with a typically busy 27 minutes off the bench. Jones, who will turn 36 in September, has been written-off countless times but revels in proving his detractors wrong. His leadership is irreplaceable in camp and his competitive zeal, soft hands and adroit handling at the set-piece mark him out as player who is universally respected.

Risk factor 3

The big question mark over Jones is the shoulder he dislocated 25 days ago. He will undoubtedly be targeted by the Springbok heavy mob, so there will be nervousness in the early encounters. Whether he’s as effective in close-quarter combat as he once was is a moot-point but he still tops the tackle and workrate charts to show his continuing durability.

4. Maro Itoje

Why’s he been picked? A bright young thing in 2017 out in New Zealand, you suspect Itoje has been earmarked for Test selection for some time. He has been used sparingly on this Lions tour, only playing 162 minutes, the least of any lock, bar the injured Alun Wyn Jones. When he has played, he has shown his quality. Against South Africa A, he was his usual self, spoiling mauls, getting his long-levers onto the ball around the breakdown and contesting the contact area with gusto. His athletic physique means he could have played several sports at a high-level but the Lions will be happy he plumped for rugby. A key man for Gatland in the engine room. He will set the tone and try to disrupt the Springbok scrum.

Risk factor 1

Itoje will play his 52nd Test on the weekend at just 26 and he is maturing as a player but his combative, disruptive playing style leads to his often incurring the wrath of the referee, as he did against Wales in the Six Nations. He will need to tread a tightrope to stay on the wrong side of Nic Berry.

3. Tadhg Furlong

Why he’s been picked? Furlong, like Watson and Itoje, would have been pencilled in as automatic picks before the tour started. Like Watson, Furlong had to overcome a year-long period out of the game with a calf-injury before returning in the Six Nations. With his Phil Bennett impression against Scotland, he showed the all-court game he possesses away from the set-piece, and despite his near 20st piano shifter frame, he has pianist’s hands for the odd drag-back pass or pop-pass into space. The likeable tighthead from New Ross RFC will be expected to lock down the Lions scrum, which will be no mean feat when Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff rumble on after the break. One player the Lions can ill-afford to lose to injury.

Tadhg Furlong
Ireland tighthead Tadhg Furlong goes on the burst against the Stormers (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Risk factor 1

Furlong has few obvious weaknesses. Okay, he may not boast Kyle Sinckler’s running lines or be expected to steam in from halfway like Taniela Tupou but he has a sharp rugby brain and is someone the Lions would follow into the cauldron.

2. Luke Cowan-Dickie

Why he’s been picked? Cowan-Dickie managed to wrestle the No 2 shirt off Jamie George during the Six Nations and yet when the squad was picked, most commentators were still placing him behind the hugely experience Ken Owen and George for a starting spot. The Exeter Chief has been nothing short of a force of nature during the tour with his chop tackling proving effective as the Lions have protected their line and his ball-carrying around the fringes giving his side the all-important gainline dominance. A peel and breakaway for a one-handed score seemed to nail down his starting spot as the form hooker.

Risk factor 3

Cowan-Dickie had a well-documented concussion during the Premiership Final and the speed at which he was passed fit to fly and participate in the warm-up games caused some controversy. Cowan-Dickie will have to be very careful with his torpedo tackle to wrap his arm around the ball-carrier, otherwise risk a card. His tussle with Bongi Mbonambi should be titantic.

  1. Wyn Jones

Why’s he been picked? In truth, there was not much to pick between the three looseheads, who all had their points of difference but it was Jones’ scrummaging ability which has seen him given the nod. A farmer from mid-Wales, the Scarlet has come through late. Indeed, the 29-year-old was making his debut for Wales four years ago when Mako Vunipola was packing down at No 1 on his second tour. Jones considers himself a diesel engine who can dig in when the going gets tough and he will need that durability at the weekend. He is also one of the Lions’ most competitive forwards over the ball.

Risk factor 3

Mako Vunipola has a stronger handling game than Jones, and Rory Sutherland covers the turf quicker but the Scarlet will keep on trundling until he drops. 

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