After a long wait and plenty of speculation the squad for this summer’s tour to New Zealand has been announced. Players up and down the country were waiting with team mates, friends and family to hear if their name was on Warren Gatland’s list.
It’s a pretty fair squad but I think it’s healthy to debate other options that could have made it, as well as how the squad will evolve when it gets on tour. I have highlighted some key players in the squad below. I’ve also explained why I think preparations are key and given my thoughts on playing down in New Zealand.
On the whole it looks like a good squad, the strength in depth is far more evident when you are picking 41 and yet you could still rattle off 10 names that easily could have found themselves in the squad.
Jonny Gray and Joe Launchbury (arguably the English player of the tournament) I think are questionable to leave out – a few could even talk about Donnacha Ryan. Personally because I think he is such a great talent, I would have rung up Gary Ringrose – but that’s just my own personal bias. He’s proven that he’s fast across the ground and has good physical strength, plus he backs it up both ways because he reads the game really well and he seems to enjoy defending as much as he does attacking.
I think the Scots were unfortunate, considering they had beaten Ireland and Wales in the Six Nations, they missed out in a couple of the 50/50 decisions.
Gatland has named Farrell as a 10 which has allowed him the luxury of bringing a number of ball carrying centres. Namely; Henshaw, Davies and Te’o who has had a big impact for England since his debut. That said, if Sexton and Farrell are fit they should be the 10/12 combination.
Robbie Henshaw epitomises the fighting spirit the squad will need and his appetite for work continues to impress. I believe Jared Payne is a great selection, he’s a very clever footballer with the versatility to play at 13 or full-back. His on field defensive play is a real asset, which alongside his communication skills will be all important against such high quality attacking teams.
Moving onto the wings you have to think George North will be selected and I like the look of Anthony Watson, he’s a lot better than his recent showing. Liam Williams is another quality player but neither of the wing positions is guaranteed, it’s about who shows up on tour. If they don’t play well in a warm up game I don’t think you can start them in a test match.
With the squad announced the focus now shifts to getting them prepared for the tour. It’s a big challenge in a short period of time. The Lions should have two weeks prior to leaving to bring the squad together, but the likelihood of Saracens, Leinster and Munster being in domestic finals is high. That leaves the coaches with the prospect of not being able to utilise those two weeks with a full complement of players. It’s a challenge as those who train with the Lions will get an advantage but those playing until the end of the season will have match fitness.
The beauty of playing and training with the Lions is they’re the cream of the crop, players take in information very quickly, you don’t have to tell them anything twice – Lions training is the most intense training you’ll ever go through.
I think the strength of the squad is the togetherness and the bond that you build. As soon as you shed your nationality, you become a Lion and that lends itself better to a good atmosphere on and off the pitch. You definitely need great togetherness down there in New Zealand, this Lions tour can be a bit of a goldfish bowl, so you’ve got to be a tight unit.
I don’t think the atmosphere in New Zealand is any different to anywhere else in the world but it’s the intensity in their game – there’s a real brutality to it. They target big collisions and are very accurate with what they do which can take its toll during a tour.
Ultimately you need to just enjoy it, it’s a very special time being a Lion. The most difficult place to tour in the world is New Zealand, so you just need to relax and it will have an effect on the pitch.
Good luck to all involved, it promises to be a great tour and an almighty battle.