LIONS TEAM VERDICT: Warren Gatland has a worthy XV built on meritocracy, not hierarchy

CHRIS FOY’S LIONS VERDICT: Warren Gatland has shown himself once again to be brave and bold … the omissions of Faletau and Murray prove this is a squad built on meritocracy, not rigid hierarchy

  • Warren Gatland’s latest Lions team has been defined by a series of bold choices
  • The Lions take on South Africa in the first Test in Cape Town on Saturday 
  • Big names, such as Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray, have been left out 
  • The omissions are a shock, but the players selected have earned their places

Warren Gatland has proved in the past that he is a bold, brave selector, and he has shown that same trait again with the make-up of this team to take on South Africa.

It is certainly not a dull, predictable Lions side, far from it. While there will be an understandable focus on the remarkable return of captain Alun Wyn Jones from his dislocated shoulder, there are several shock inclusions and omissions. 

Gatland and his assistants have evidently had the courage of their convictions to trust form over reputation in many cases.

Taulupe Faletau has been omitted from the British and Irish Lions squad for the first Test

On status alone, Taulupe Faletau was a shoo-in to start at No 8, but he is nowhere to be seen in the match-day 23. 

Jack Conan will pack down at the base of the scrum and the selection of the Irishman is fully merited, based on his exploits on this Covid-stalked crusade. But leaving out Faletau is not something the coaches will have done lightly. He is a Lion of the highest pedigree.

Others in that category have also missed the cut, notably Jamie George and Mako Vunipola, who were both mainstays of the 2017 Test team. 

George has captained the Lions out here, but now he won’t even feature on the bench against the Springboks. But, again, who can dispute the logic? 

Mako Vunipola is another surprise omission, having previously been a mainstay in the team

Mako Vunipola is another surprise omission, having previously been a mainstay in the team

Luke Cowan-Dickie was a primal force of nature in last weekend’s win over the Stormers. He earned the right to be catapulted into the XV. His charge was wonderfully timed.

Conor Murray is among the replacements, as further proof that Gatland’s Lions regime is meritocratic. 

The Ireland scrum-half was named stand-in tour captain partly because he was regarded as a man very likely to feature in the starting Test side. But Ali Price has played better, so the Scot has won the vote. 

Quite right too. If Murray had been named at No 9, it would have created the sense of a rigid hierarchy. Instead, the players know they are all fairly considered and assessed.

Luke Cowan-Dickie is proof that Warren Gatland has opted for form over stature in his team

Luke Cowan-Dickie is proof that Warren Gatland has opted for form over stature in his team

Owen Farrell will be alongside Murray on the bench and he is another leading figure who many felt would be picked to start as if by birth-right. But no, he had to earn it, and he was unable to do so. 

Dan Biggar has been the stand-out No 10 so he rightly wears that shirt. And Robbie Henshaw is a bona fide inside centre, whereas Farrell wasn’t the right fit there, in the absence of his friend and England side-kick, George Ford.

None of the individual calls made by Gatland and Co stand comparison with the decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll for the series decider in Australia eight years ago, but overall this line-up contains more unexpected elements.

Duhan van der Merwe’s inclusion as a big runner out wide comes at the expense of Josh Adams, who has scored eight tour tries and earned acclaim from his head coach. And Liam Williams was passed fit, but lost out at full-back to Stuart Hogg – another surprise.

Up front, it was long assumed that the management were leaning towards the balance of a lineout jumper at blindside flanker and Courtney Lawes fits that bill. 

Conor Murray will start on the bench

Ali Price also starts against South Africa

Ali Price’s inclusion ahead of stand-in captain Conor Murray is another bold selection choice

His ball-carrying class has seen him edge out Tadhg Beirne for the No 6 shirt and few can quibble with that decision. 

At openside, Tom Curry has earned the start, as Hamish Watson’s final audition was not entirely convincing.

All in all, this is a team designed to be daring. The Lions must seek to forge ahead and protect their lead, as Murray and Farrell are the sort of half-backs who can be deployed to close out a game rather than chase it.

Gatland has delivered the shocks, now his players need to deliver the awe.