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The Breakdown | Gatland must pick right characters for Lions’ unique tour in South Africa

The Guardian - Tue May 4 09:00

Playing the British & Irish Lions selection game is like an endless game of Cluedo with the same recurring outcome. All that conjecture, all those permutations and it still basically boils down to Warren Gatland in the lounge with an impressive array of lead piping. With South Africa’s big men, as the old timers liked to say, it generally pays to get your retribution in first.

This time around, though, the equation is subtly different. It is not enough simply to pick your best 36 players and kickstart the team bonding process by inviting them to spread out in a bunch. Assuming a grim new African wave of Covid infections does not scupper the whole trip, this will be a rugby safari like no other. Weeks on end in hotel meeting rooms with little chance to explore an extraordinary country? The forthcoming season of Lion of Duty will present some unprecedented challenges.

Which means that Gatland, more than ever, needs to take character into account ahead of Thursday’s selection announcement. Forget the Kruger national park; the only “Big Five” this squad are set to encounter will be the TV remote, the mini-bar, the room service menu, the complimentary biscuits and, rarely seen nowadays, the trouser press. He needs players who, as they throw open the curtains and survey the familiar view from their Sandton “bubble” each morning, feel genuinely thrilled to be there.

Hearteningly, even in the absence of a sea of red-jerseyed fans, there appears to be no shortage of willing supplicants. Of those on the long list, only Ben Youngs, for family reasons, has opted out, which says much for the allure of a concept that some would happily consign to the knacker’s yard. Beware the oval-ball anti-vaxxers who peddle such depressing rubbish. The day rugby abandons the Lions is the moment the entire sport loses a vital chunk of its soul.

Because what is life without a willingness, every now and then, to confound the received wisdom and attempt the theoretically impossible? Amid all the “I’d take so-and-so” pub garden conjecture the sheer scale of the Lions’ ambition can sometimes be forgotten. Standing toe to toe with the world champions in their own backyard, with minimal preparation and players who have barely met? Sign me up, Warren.

Warren Gatland looks on from the stands at Bath’s European Challenge Cup tie against Montpellier.
Warren Gatland looks on from the stands at Bath’s European Challenge Cup tie against Montpellier. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

In every sense it requires individuals for whom the impossible is more than just an advertising slogan. Unusually - to repeat, this is no average tour - it makes picking the right captain the initial priority. This is not going to be an assignment for the sort of leader who does his talking only on the field. In this instance, with so much potential for off-field distractions, he needs to be part father confessor, part-indestructible Superman, part-wise old owl. Next time around Maro Itoje could easily be that man but, for now, it is hard to look past Wales’s supreme leader, Alun Wyn Jones, still a relentless force at the age of 35.

Aside from Wales’s Six Nations title, the other decisive shaping influence on this squad could well be Leinster’s failure to cope with La Rochelle’s power surge in Sunday’s Champions’ Cup semi-final. At a stroke it called into question how some of Leinster’s candidates would fare against similarly muscular South African opposition, with James Ryan, Ronan Kelleher and Gary Ringrose among those now awaiting Thursday’s announcement with more trepidation than might previously have been the case.

It also brought into sharper focus Gatland’s strategy for the series. Knowing how South Africa are likely to play, with plenty of ball in the air, a tough set-piece and a formidable bench - aka The Bomb Squad - he is going to need solid foundations and players capable of defusing danger: bomb disposal units if you will. Everyone has been talking about those areas where Gatland is spoiled for choice, notably in the back five of the scrum, but the 2021 Lions will only be as strong as their weakest links. Remember 1997 when Tom Smith and Paul Wallace scrummaged so low they disconcerted the Springboks? This time it is in midfield and at the breakdown where the Lions’s series prospects will be forged.

Sometimes perfect combinations can materialise out of thin air; within about five minutes of watching Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll playing alongside each other on the 2009 Lions tour it was clear they were a dream ticket. It has seldom happened but the pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade always feels like the English equivalent; for this Lions squad, with Robbie Henshaw seemingly a Test shoo-in at 12, 13 is looming as a keynote pick. The experienced Jonathan Davies has long been a Gatland staple, which leaves Tuilagi, Slade, Ringrose and Scotland’s defensively-strong Chris Harris fighting over, at best, two places.

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It will be similarly tight for the final wing berth: Jack Nowell may have to be content with a stand-by role while Duhan van der Merwe and Elliot Daly scrap over the last remaining left wing berth. If Tuilagi is not considered sufficiently match fit, Van der Merwe’s ability to power through tackles might become even more valuable. Up front, too, the Lions must beware being seen as pussycats and will require some hard-nosed back-up for Taulupe Faletau. If Exeter reach the Premiership final, however, does that leave enough time to assimilate the electric Sam Simmonds into the mix? Or might someone like CJ Stander, such a good team man, represent an expedient short cut?

Decisions, decisions, with the odd surprise still possible. Does Ryan cling on or could Jonny Gray, Adam Beard or even Jonny Hill sneak past him? Please tell me Finn Russell will travel, even if the management’s gameplan is not tailor-made for him. And whither big Billy V? Good luck to Gatland and his lieutenants as they sit in the socially-distanced lounge, flicking through their lead piping brochures.

Quick Guide

The Breakdown’s British & Irish Lions squad picks

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Full-backs S Hogg (Scotland), L Williams (Wales) Wings J Adams (Wales), L Rees-Zammit (Wales), D Van der Merwe (Scotland), A Watson (England)
Centres J Davies (Wales), O Farrell (England), R Henshaw (Ireland), H Slade (England), M Tuilagi (England).
Fly-halves D Biggar (Wales), F Russell (Scotland)
Scrum-halves G Davies (Wales), C Murray (Ireland), T Williams (Wales) Hookers L Cowan-Dickie (England), J George (England), K Owens (Wales)
Props T Furlong (Ireland), C Healy (Ireland), W Jones (Wales), A Porter (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), M Vunipola (England) 
Locks I Henderson (Ireland), M Itoje (England), AW Jones (Wales, capt), J Gray (Scotland) Flankers T Beirne (Ireland), T Curry (England), J Tipuric (Wales), S Underhill (England), H Watson (Scotland)
No 8s T Faletau (Wales), S Simmonds (England).