SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Warren Gatland pulls a few rabbits out of the hat in his selection, Courtney Lawes can damage South Africa while Jonny Hill is an aggressive, tough-tackling lock… the Lions must fight fire with fire
- The Lions must fight fire with fire for every minute of the tour this summer
- It will be a war up front in South Africa and the Lions need a world-class pack
- Gatland has picked a fascinating squad for the Test series against the Boks
Warren Gatland has based his many successes with Wasps, Wales and the Lions on being practical and realistic.
He always does it his way without being diverted by the noise and opinion that accompanies top-flight sport. That is reflected in this fascinating squad.
He has pulled a few rabbits out of the hat — I doubt if a single pundit called this squad — but you can see the method that went into his thinking.
The Lions must not take a backward step and that has guided Warren Gatland’s selection
Firstly, a Lions Test series in South Africa is always won and lost up front, which is why he has gone for 21 extremely physical forwards. It will be a war up front in every match and the Lions must field a world-class pack.
At the World Cup, the Boks not only fielded a mighty eight but also put six forwards of similar class on the bench in every game. The Lions must fight fire with fire for every minute of the tour.
They must not take a backward step and that is what has guided his selection.
We see that in the call-up of Courtney Lawes who, largely because of injury, has only started four England games since the 2019 World Cup final. Lawes in peak form and fitness is a tackling machine who can damage even the Boks, possibly at six rather than lock.
Sam Simmonds can hurt the Boks with his astonishing physicality and pace in the loose
Ireland’s Andrew Porter is a massively strong scrummager and it says much for his performances for his country when deputising for the injured Tadhg Furlong that in purely scrummaging terms the 2017 Lion was not overly missed. However, Furlong offers much else besides, so both go.
Ulster lock Iain Henderson, a Lion in 2017, is another combative forward who has caught Gatland’s eye and possibly gets selected at the expense of James Ryan, who seemed a shoo-in a year ago.
Exeter Chief Sam Simmonds is another who can hurt the Boks with his astonishing physicality and pace in the loose. I am delighted his excellence at club level has not gone unnoticed by Gatland and remain bewildered why England have continually ignored him.
England forward Courtney Lawes is a tackling machine who can damage the Boks
England have come out of the selection process well considering the disappointing season they suffered, with Gatland taking a long-term view on form rather than the last few months.
Jamie George is a quality hooker but has not been at his best recently. Gatland knows him from 2017 and is backing him to return to that level, although he faces a battle to earn the starting spot ahead of Ken Owens and Luke Cowan-Dickie.
Jonny Hill is something of a punt. At his best — the aggressive, confrontational, tough-tackling lock we see for Exeter every week — he fits the bill entirely and, though he needs to find his feet at the elite level, Lions tours can do that for some players.
The backs are intriguing and I am surprised that specialist centres Jonathan Davies and Garry Ringrose failed to make the squad. But again you must consider that South Africa will be sending big powerhouse runners into the midfield.
Alongside Robbie Henshaw, who has surely earned one Lions starting spot, you might need a brilliant technical tackler like Scotland’s Chris Harris or somebody with the physical attributes of Bundee Aki.
Andrew Porter is a massively strong scrummager as the Lions seek to fight fire with fire
Aki’s selection hadn’t really occurred to me but again there is logic to it with the decision not to risk Manu Tuilagi.
I still see Owen Farrell as a fly-half but I think Gatland is reserving the right to also consider him at centre, which is where he played in 2017.
Farrell has endured a difficult time since the World Cup final but I would be surprised if his goal-kicking doesn’t play a significant part in the series.
Elsewhere, I am delighted for Finn Russell. I thought it would be between him and Johnny Sexton for the final place and feared the Scot would lose out. He offers the Lions different options to Dan Biggar and Farrell.
So there we have it. Congratulations to Alun Wyn Jones, whose selection as captain was a foregone conclusion. His career has already been staggering but this is probably the biggest challenge he has faced and the biggest honour he has received.
Finally, fingers crossed for all 37 players over the coming weeks. History tells us that one or two will get injured and miss the trip, but let’s hope the 2021 Lions tour is the exception.