Well, the wait is finally, and rather mercifully, over as fans from both hemispheres have spent the last number of weeks and months picking their Lions squads, but finally the only man whose picks matter, Warren Gatland, has made his decision.
At lunchtime on Wednesday Gatland picked the squad he feels is best suited to going to his home country and beating the best team in world rugby at the moment and for the last number of years. The Lions face a huge task in coming away with a series win as the schedule is particularly difficult, combined with the fact that the All Blacks will be releasing their players to play the midweek games for their respective franchises.
This means the attrition rate on the tour is sure to be high and while we will all touch wood, say a prayer and light a candle that no one has to withdraw through injury it is almost a certainty that some will have their tour cut short.
During the 2013 tour to Australia three forwards (Alex Corbisiero, Ryan Grant and Tom Court) as well as five backs (Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Christian Wade, Shane Williams and Simon Zebo) were all added to the squad to cope with the injury problems.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the most likely candidates that Gatland will be calling upon if injury strikes.
While Joe Marler won out in the battle for the third loosehead spot in the initial squad, given that in the 2013 tour three props were called up late it seems likely there will be a demand for a prop to fly out during the tour. Of the candidates who missed out on selection, Healy seems a likely bet to end up in New Zealand. Having put a series of troublesome injuries behind him and regained form at both provincial and international level, Healy is looking more and more like the man who traveled to Australia in 2013 as the likely first choice loosehead.
Healy brings both powerful scrummaging and ball carrying to any team he features in and the fact that he was out with injuries and behind Jack McGrath for both province and country for much of the season means he has relatively few miles on the clock and would go to New Zealand fresh and keen to make up for his last tour being cut short by injury.
The omission of Launchbury is arguably the biggest surprise from Gatland’s squad announcement with many tipping the Wasps man as a Test starter before the squad was announced. With Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones seen as certainties to travel, Gatland has preferred the versatility of Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes as well as the lineout calling ability of George Kruis over Launchbury.
In a position with such a high attrition rate it seems likely that at least one additional second row will need to be called up and Launchbury seems the most likely contender. Two Man of the Match performances in the Six Nations and a nomination for Player of the Tournament highlight just how good the Wasps man is and with his huge appetite for work as well as his exceptional work in both defence and at the breakdown it seems almost certain that Launchbury will become a Lion at some point this summer.
With Owen Farrell looking likely to continue at inside centre on the tour, the battle to be understudy to Johnny Sexton came down to Finn Russell, Dan Biggar and George Ford. Ultimately the tenacious Ospreys out half won the battle after a solid Six Nations, and the fact that Gatland knows and trusts him so much certainly did not hurt his selection chances.
Russell had something of an up and down Six Nations mixing excellent running, offloading and kicking with a hugely disappointing showing against England. Russell has shown in the past, however, that his hard running and offloading style can cause the southern hemisphere sides problems, as it did in the autumn internationals. This, combined with Scotland’s disappointingly low representation in the squad, may make Gatland more likely to prefer to call another Scot into the group should he lose one of his playmakers to injury.
A late call-up to the 2013 squad that toured Australia, Zebo can rightly be feeling quite disappointed not to make the initial cut once again this year. Under the guidance of Joe Schmidt and recently Rassie Erasmus at Munster, Zebo has worked extremely hard to improve his defence, his work rate around the pitch and his breakdown work.
These skills, added to his already present attacking threat, versatility across the back three and his ability to step in as another playmaking option, will make Zebo a likely addition to the squad if and when injuries strike. An often highlighted aspect by former players is the need for good characters on the tour and Zebo certainly fits that bill being a big personality, and as we saw on the last tour Zebo likes to get in and have fun off the pitch as well, making him an even more attractive option for Gatland’s men.
Andrew Byrne, Pundit Arena