Lions Squad Assessment: Versatility Trumps All Else

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British and Irish Lions Tour Squad and Captain Announcement
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 19: (L-R) Alex Payne of Sky Sports speaks to the Lions coaching and management team of Graham Rowntree (Assistant Coach), Rob Howley (Assistant Coach), Steve Borthwick (Assistant Coach), Neil Jenkins (Assistant Coach), Andy Farrell (Assistant Coach), Warren Gatland (Head Coach), Sam Warburton (Captain) and John Spencer (Tour Manager) during the British and Irish Lions tour squad announcement at the Hilton London Syon Park Hotel on April 19, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Versatility was the flavour of the day on Wednesday, when Warren Gatland finally named his Lions squad to take on double-world champions New Zealand. Those who lacked the dynamism and skill set to perform in at least two positions appeared to be overlooked with very few specialists picked in the touring party.

You can see the method being Gatland’s madness – because leaving Joe Launchbury out is about as mad a decision as you get – New Zealand are possibly the best side fans have seen, and therefore the Lions will need more strings to their bow than any Lions squad has had before.

Such is the depth of the squad (41 players) the inevitable ‘Lions XV’ predictions that came out might as well been thrown straight in the bin. Gatland proved with some wildcard selections that he’s going to throw in ‘a few surprises’.

Versatility Trumps All Else

And quite a surprise it will be if he manages to manufacture one win during the three-test series, let alone the two victories that would secure the unlikeliest of triumphs.

Starting with the locks, which looked like the most competitive area of the squad, we see how Launchbury’s one dimensional game; which is phenomenal may I add, meant that the likes of Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson got the nod ahead of him.

The Northampton Saints bolter and the Ulsterman give you constant gain line success, but they have the ability to do it whether they wear 4, 5, 6 or 7. It gives Gatland a larger spectrum to work with when it comes down to selection.

Say he were to opt with the Saracens duo of Maro Itoje and George Kruis in the second row, the versatility of Lawes and Henderson means Gatland doesn’t have to compromise if one of them is in sparkling form.

 

Similarly, in the back row, Munster pair CJ Stander and late charger Peter O’Mahony can cover both 6 and 7, with Stander also comfortable at 8. They will balance the assured leadership qualities of Lions squad captain Sam Warburton, who can also move around the side to assist in the gameplan.

Flanker Selection Balanced by Versatile Group

Taulupe Falateu may have taken his time to get going this season but is now hitting his traps himself at Bath. His cousin Billy Vunipola is the favourite for the number 8 jersey, but such is Faleteu’s skillset, athleticism and versatility, he is able to operate as a ranging flanker–which may look his best shot of gaining a test start.

Looking at the backs and many people feel as if 9, 10 and 12 are as good as nailed down, with Conor Murray, Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell all hard to ignore. Given the consistency of their play and their big game mentality, each can offer more than just a number on a piece of paper. Quality in the five-eights roles is definitely a strong suit.

As this tour involves ten matches, there is ample time to experiment. That makes the remaining four spots of the back division all the more interesting a selection. The trump card for Gatland in Last Word on Rugby’s opinion is Elliot Daly and most expect him to start at least one test this summer.

Backline Filled with Many ‘Weapons’ to Choose From

Daly’s arsenal of weapons is immense, none more so that his acceleration which will pick holes in the All Blacks defense wherever he may line up. He also has the longest kicking range of any player traveling south and notching three points from as far as 60 meters out could prove vital.

The Lions number 13 jersey for the first time since 1997 wont feature one Brian O’Driscoll – fear not though those from the Emerald Isle. Robbie Henshaw is the heir apparent and, despite playing at 12 for Leinster, is equally comfortable as the outside centre and will probably battle for that position with Jonathan Joseph and surprise inclusion Jared Payne.

Across the back three Gatland has an array of options with George North, Jack Nowell, Liam Williams, Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson  all offering something that little bit different. The weapons at his choosing, make the early games all appealing as opportunities for them to ‘fire’.

Back Three Must Be Prepared to Attack All Blacks

Gatland will have to gauge what he thinks is the ‘best way’ to beat the All Blacks and, despite having no intention of doing so, it could take defeat in the first test to figure out what that formula is. George North is perhaps the only player in that list who limits himself just as a pure-winger, but with his speed and strength he doesn’t get restricted often.

Liam Williams of the Scarlets in action during the Guinness Pro 12 match between Newport Gwent Dragons and Scarlets at Principality Stadium on April 30, 2016 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

 

Williams (above image) was the stand out player when Wales visited New Zealand shores last summer so that may give the Scarlets man a slight edge on his colleagues. Anthony Watson maybe the man with the most versatile game, so expect him to be tested against the Super Rugby sides, leading up to the first important test.

One thing for certain is that Gatland has left his options firmly open with a squad that is capable of so many combinations, with so much variety – let’s just hope they turn out to be combinations of a winning kind.

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The British and Irish Lions squad play ten matches, including three tests and five games against all the NZ Super Rugby franchise teams.

 

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