Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Gatland still full of surprises

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton
British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton

Wow. Warren Gatland has always had the ability to shock and surprise, and his Lions squad is no different.

From an Irish point of view the greatest surprise and disappointment is the omission of Rory Best.

Six months ago his selection was not in doubt, and Rory was tipped to be the leading contender for the Test hooker berth. One can only assume that Best's chances have suffered as a result of the lineout problems and inconsistencies that beset Ireland during the Six Nations.

While Gatland's selection generally seems to favour bulk, this should not have hindered Best, who is known as a quality scrummager, therefore it is strange to understand the reasoning behind the preference of Dylan Hartley.

Furthermore, the Aussies are going to wind Hartley up no end and there is a question over his self-discipline. It is an odd selection and bitterly bitterly disappointing for the player.

Tommy Bowe's eyes, on the other hand, will definitely be smiling. Based on his experience and ability to step up and perform in the big games, Bowe has largely been selected on good faith.

He has shown glimpses of real quality since returning from injury and now has a month to really hone his fitness and game. He is fortunate, but the fact that no one will raise too much of an eyebrow speaks volumes for his pedigree.

And, anyway, there are far too many other selections to talk about. Looking at the names on the squad list, there are glaring inconsistencies and contradictions.

Gatland said that, 'the Six Nations was the benchmark, looking at the intensity and physicality of that'.

Therefore, Matt Stevens' selection really does come out of left field given that he withdrew himself from English consideration and has not been tested on the international pitch for a relatively long time.

The French factor is also strange. Selection of players plying their trade in France was supposed to be hindered by the fact that they are not expected to be available for the start of the tour. Yet, Gethin Jenkins has been picked. If he is not needed by Toulon what does this say about his form? Or is he too essential for Gatland not to pick him?

If picking the French players was indeed an option then Nathan Hines has reason to be disappointed, and of course Jonny Wilkinson has been a constant in the headlines all week.

The Farrell v Wilkinson debate is intriguing as their games contain many similarities. However, last weekend, Wilkinson showed that he is still the master.

Despite his extreme modesty, the decision has completely split rugby opinion. For me, if all things are equal i.e. both would be playing behind packs with either parity or dominance, Wilkinson has proved that he is still the superior player, based on his experience and composure. The apparent conversation between him and Gatland is telling.

The former's first loyalty is to Toulon. But at the end of the French season, if he is still in one piece, I can absolutely see him joining the tour. The message: 'Wait and see if I am still in one piece, say the word and I'll jump on the plane'.

Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell will be in the majority of the starting squads of every game. On a ten-match tour that, in itself, is testing.

Assuming that Sexton is the starting 10 in the Test matches, who would you rather come off the bench to either change or close out a game? Farrell or Jonny? If fit, I believe that Wilkinson will play a major part.

Some of the other Irish Lions will be heaving a huge sigh of relief. None more so that Irish captain Jamie Heaslip. A poor Six Nations has been rescued by decent showings in the Amlin Cup and his recent man of the match performance against Biarritz maybe tipped the balance in his favour.

Meanwhile, Conor Murray is almost an identikit of Mike Phillips and here the size factor that Gatland favours is preferred to the buzzing pace and intensity of Danny Care.

It certainly looks as if Gatland has it in mind to smash the Aussies, but one wonders where is the creativity? It may come in a fully-charged Manu Tuilagi coming off the bench to replace one of the starting centres. Maybe not quite Jason Robinson of 12 years ago, but that seems to be the way of professional rugby nowadays.

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