Bold selection from Gatland highlights bruising challenge which awaits British and Irish Lions

Warren Gatland has made some bold choices in his British and Irish Lions squad
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The squad announcement for the British and Irish Lions was always going to spark a debate regardless of the outcome, but when Warren Gatland eventually revealed his hand on Thursday lunchtime, the reaction was arguably greater than any of us would have anticipated.

Maybe we should have expected a few curveballs when, in the preamble, Gatland casually mentioned his party of 36 had turned into a squad of 37, but when you dig a little bit deeper, his bold choices truly highlight the knowledge he has garnered from past encounters with the current world champions.

Under Gatland’s stewardship, Wales won five of their last seven games against the Springboks, but it is his memories of the Lions’ last visit to South Africa which seem to be at the forefront of his mind.

The sheer brutality of that series in 2009 - when Gatland was the Forwards Coach - is hard to erase and the Lions boss admitted those experiences came into his thinking: “It was right up there. I think we have got to learn from 2009 and the way that South Africa also played in the [2019] World Cup.

“Over the last few years, we had a pretty good formula for Wales in terms of the success we had against South Africa, but now it is not Wales, it is the British and Irish Lions and we have tried to get that balance right [in the squad].

“When we go there, we are going to have to roll our sleeves up and we are going to have to go toe-to-toe with the South Africans. We feel like we have picked players that, if we get in that physical situation, can do that sort of job for us, but we are also mindful that we want to play some good rugby. We want to be positive in the way we play”.

One of Gatland’s choices may actually encapsulate his point, and game plan, perfectly. The selection of Sam Simmonds has been a hot topic all season, despite England head coach Eddie Jones continuously giving the Exeter Chiefs man the cold shoulder.

The 26-year-old, who has not featured on the international stage since March 2018, is currently the Gallagher Premiership’s leading try-scorer and Gatland was quick to highlight the 'point of difference' which the back-rower can offer against the Springboks.

“It [Simmonds’ selection] was just looking at South Africa. If you tuck the ball under your arm and they run straight, they love that sort of thing so I am conscious of having that balance. Sam and guys like Taulupe Faletau have got that footwork and that deception.

“He is quick, and we can run lots of variations with him. We have seen Exeter do that really effectively not just as a forward carrier, but almost like running as a back so he gives us some really good options.”

Simmonds’ inclusion, along with Ireland's Jack Conan, means Billy Vunipola is one of the big-name causalities who is not part of Gatland’s plans to take on the world champions.

Five Saracens players were named in the Lions squad, but Gatland explained why he has left out Vunipola: “With the loose forwards, particularly with Sam and with Taulupe Faletau, we looked at the No.8s being explosive in the way they carry and probably with Billy at the moment, he is probably not quite there.

“I didn’t see from him in the Six Nations the same sort of impact that he has had in the past in terms of how important he has been for England when they have been successful, getting across the gain line and busting tackles. That is the reason why we haven’t picked him.”

The mobile and explosive element to Gatland’s squad filters into the backs and the surprise call up of Bundee Aki perhaps isn’t too much of a shock despite the Ireland international getting a seat on the plane ahead of the likes of Henry Slade and Jonathan Davies, who was the man of the series against New Zealand four years ago.

In Aki, Gatland wants to replicate the powerful attributes that a player such as Manu Tuilagi possesses (who himself isn't out of contention altogether) if they are to tackle South Africa at their own game and potentially match the threat of the Boks' Damian de Allende.

Let's not forget, the Lions boss did something similar with Ben Te'o against the All Blacks when they came up against Sonny Bill Williams.

“We have got choices in Jonathan or Gary Ringrose or Manu if players do get injuries,” Gatland added.

“I thought the midfield combination of Aki and [Robbie] Henshaw was absolutely outstanding in the Six Nations and we have tried to get that balance right. Jonathan was carrying an injury during the World Cup so he was struggling whilst playing at his best. He had an operation, came back, but I think he is still probably getting back to some of his better form which he started to get towards towards the end of the Six Nations.

“We want players getting on the plane who we know are going to be fit. There are one or two players that are coming back from injury and we are not 100 per cent sure that they will have had enough quality rugby under their belt. Maybe they will be considered later on.

“Someone like Manu is a prime example of that. He has been out a long time with that Achilles. How much game time is he going to get? Can he hold his body together to potentially be in consideration? We could have taken that risk in terms of trying to get him fit, but there was some element of risk to that as well.”

According to the Lions boss, durability was a factor in selecting the likes of Scotland’s Finn Russell over the experienced Johnny Sexton in the fly-half position, with Gatland pointing out that the Ireland international hasn’t played three consecutive weekends of rugby since 2018.

In the back three, there is no place for Jack Nowell who was always up against it in terms of getting back to full fitness after a spell on the sidelines, so the lightning quick Louis Rees-Zammit along with the huge presence of Duhan van der Merwe - who is one of eight Scotland players included by Gatland - have made the cut.

Across numerous positions, there are calls that have left many scratching their heads and you can understand why.

The omission of a "gutted" Kyle Sinckler in the front row, the absence of James Ryan at lock and no Jonny May out on the wing will have raised a lot of questions, but when you look at the way South Africa won the World Cup two years ago and how they performed the last time the Lions came to town, you can see why Gatland has selected the squad he has gone for and we ought to trust him.

Alun Wyn Jones' selection as captaincy shows the importance of leadership both on and off the field

The tour to South Africa will be unique for so many reasons so who better to lead the Lions against the world champions than Alun Wyn Jones.

If some of Gatland's selections were seen as controversial, the appointment of Jones as captain was the exact opposite after his superb form over the last year or so and in a way, the typifies everything that is good about the Lions.

The 35-year-old, who will be going on his fourth tour, found out on Sunday that he would be captaining the Lions, but only after a missed call from Gatland: "I was actually doing my Sunday evening spin just to get my legs going for Monday!" Jones said.

"I saw the name on the missed list...it was very succinct “give me a call”. I sort of knew what it was about, obviously, so I called him back. He said “how are you? how’s it going? I’d like you to lead the Lions. To hear those words and that question is very special. I was more than happy to accept."

Jones will now be tasked with showing his immense leadership qualities on a tour which will be significantly impacted by the pandemic.

With the Lions having to follow clear guidelines over in South Africa, his duties both on and off the pitch will be in the spotlight as he looks to unite four nations.

But Jones was quick to point out that he won't be the only leader and strong communicator in the 37-man squad. Saracens' Maro Itoje was certainly in the running for the captaincy and the Welshman was quick to praise his second-row colleague.

"I think first and foremost for Maro he’s been one of the standout performers in the Six Nations for the last few years and since he’s come on the scene," Jones added.

"A lot of pressure has been put on him and he’s risen to that. In terms of leadership in the group and the potential number of captains, it was probably double figures really.

"There are guys who have captained other countries and in big European games where they’ve had success. I always say I’m very fortunate with Wales to have the leadership group I have and the guys who run their relevant departments. I don’t see that as being any different when you get to this level.

"Gats said it’s the best of the best and that shows in the leadership Maro brings when he plays."

British and Irish Lions Squad 2021

Forwards: Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Jack Conan (Ireland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Tom Curry (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Jonny Hill (England), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Ken Owens (Wales), Andrew Porter (Ireland), Sam Simmonds (England), Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Hamish Watson (Scotland).

Backs: Josh Adams (Wales), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Chris Harris (Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ali Price (Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales).

England Fixtures