WARREN GATLAND is taking a small Lions squad of 36 bodies, which will likely be split 20/16, forwards and backs. We are presuming that Gatland, never the most imaginative coach in the world, will stick with what he knows, opting for experience over youth with the odd exception where he will look for a clear and obvious point of difference; a game breaker, someone who makes a splash at the very highest level of Test match rugby, because the Lions need to win two of them to consider this tour a success.
Liam Williams and Stuart Hogg
Unlucky: No one really. Bolter: Leigh Halfpenny!
The full-backs pretty much pick themselves. No one else really elbows their way into the frame. Hugo Keenan’s time may yet come but Elliot Daly’s stock has fallen sharply this season, alongside a few other Englishmen.
Anthony Watson, Sean Maitland, Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit.
Unlucky: Jonny May. Bolter: Jordan Larmour.
The wings are wide open with Anthony Watson the only one who is nailed on. Sean Maitland has been playing as well as ever and must have a shout as he also covers 15 while Josh Adams can double up at 13. Thereafter Gatland has two opportunities to pick a ‘point of difference’ player; Louis Rees-Zammit for his pace or Duhan Van der Merwe for his power.
Jon Davies, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell and Henry Slade.
Unlucky: Chris Harris. Bolter: Cameron Redpath.
This is not an area of strength for the Lions with George North out of the equation and Manu Tuilagi currently injured. There is a chance that Gatland will name the Sale Shark and cross his fingers the big fella can make the flight but we have presumed otherwise. Ireland duo Henshaw/Ringrose are both shoo-ins and Owen Farrell goes as a 10/12. Jon Davies’ best days are behind him but he has been there and done it while Henry Slade’s versatility (10, 12 or 13) may earn him a ticket.
Finn Russell and Dan Biggar
Unlucky: Jonny Sexton. Bolter: George Ford
Gatland has to make a big call at ten and we think he will leave Jonny Sexton at home. The Irishman showed his enduring class during the Six Nations but he would be targeted relentlessly by the Saffas and his mind is writing cheques his body can no longer cash. Dan Biggar is probably the best kicking fly-half in Europe, which is vital in the thin air and hard grounds of the Republic, while Finn Russell is one of those game breakers the Lions will need.
Conor Murray, Gareth Davies and Jamison Gibson-Park
Unlucky: Ali Price. Bolter: Tomos Williams.
Conor Murray goes as favourite to start the Tests thanks to his box kicking ability and defensive duties but Gareth Davies will push him all the way, especially if the Lions go one down and need to add some urgency to proceedings. With Ben Youngs ruling himself out, the third spot could be between Tomos Williams and Ali Price but we’ve looked to left field, with Jamison Gibson-Park for his attacking threat. You remember Matt Dawson’s cheeky scrumhalf snipe in 1997… right?
Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler.
Unlucky: Rory Sutherland. Bolter: Zander Fagerson.
Gatland will take six props and he has some good ‘uns. On the right side of the scrum, Zander Fagerson’s ball playing skills miss out to the size and brute strength of Ireland’s Andrew Porter who gets the nod because the head coach well remembers what the Beast did to Phil Vickery and the Lions’ scrum at Kings Park back in 2009. Tadhg Furlong is favourite for the Test team and England’s Kyle Sinckler his probable back up. On the loosehead berth Mako Vunipola and Wyn Jones, outstanding in the Six Nations, should travel with the last place a toss up between Joe Marler, who quit England but could return in red, and Rory Sutherland, whose best showing was 15 months ago and is currently racing to recover from a shoulder injury.
Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jamie George
Unlucky: Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown. Bolter: Ireland’s Ronan Kelleher.
Ken Owens and Luke Cowan-Dickie probably go and either of the Scots, Stuart McInally or Fraser Brown could have joined them had either of them got a little more time in the saddle. Instead, Gatland will probably go for the experience/bulk of Englishman Jamie George although the abrasive Ronan Kelleher has a shout.
Iain Henderson, Alun Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Maro Itoje and Tadhg Beirne
Unlucky: the injured Joe Launchbury. Bolter: Jonny Gray.
This is one of the easier asks. Alun Wyn Jones captains the team and starts alongside Majo Itoje in the Tests, with good support from the Irish duo. Tadhg Beirne is listed as a lock but will push hard for inclusion as a Test match six.
Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill and Sam Simmonds
Unlucky: Hamish Watson. Bolter: Zach Mercer or Caelan Doris.
How many ‘small’ men can Gatland justify when touring South Africa where the 6’ 5”, 120kgs giant that is Pieter-Steph du Toit is a flanker!? We think one … and we think Gatland being Gatland will opt for old favourite Justin Tipuric ahead of Player of the Six Nations Hamish Watson. Sam Underhill fills the chopper/stopper role that Dan Lydiate made his own in the past and the Lions will undoubtedly need one. Ireland’s number eight Caelan Doris is injured right now but could yet feature. Sam Simmonds’ best chance of a Test match spot is in the No7 jersey, although Tom Curry remains favourite to start the Tests alongside Taulupe Faletau.