Rugby: Gatland heralds strongest Lions selection under his watch

Warren Gatland had been saying in the hour prior to the announcement that there would be some surprises in his Lions squad and the head coach was true to his word.

First of all, the numbers - 41. That is more than had been expected.

Initial plans had been to take 37 or perhaps 38, so the coaches evidently felt there was a need for greater cover and variety in several positions.

Then some of the wild-cards. It had been widely touted that England rookies Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te'o, would be included, but there was no real sense of anticipation that Ross Moriarty and Jared Payne would make the cut.

Moriarty demonstrated his ferocious, destructive qualities, when Wales faced England, so the Gloucester back-rower will bring formidable clout. Payne is a versatile back for Ireland and a Kiwi - as is Te'o - who will understand the territory in New Zealand.

There is positive news in the fact that Jonathan Joseph has been picked, in defiance of the speculation that the Bath and England centre would be left out. His inclusion is a vital nod to pace and guile, in the midst of so much power and might.

Make no mistake, this is a big squad in every sense. This is an amalgamation of British and Irish muscle, with a reasonable sprinkling of flair and finesse.

It is welcome to see Justin Tipuric given a place among so many back-row giants, as the Ospreys and Wales flanker provides vital variety, and a staggering repertoire of attacking and defensive skills.

Sam Warburton as captain is not a contentious call, as he is a highly experienced leader, who has been through this high-profile process before. Granted, stepping down from the Wales captaincy has empowered him of late, in terms of personal form, but he is shrewd enough to juggle the competing demands on his time.

The presence of 16 English players is a fair reflection of their resurgence and success under Eddie Jones. Some of those left out, such as captain Dylan Hartley and Joe Launchbury, have the right to feel aggrieved, but competition was phenomenally fierce.

The latter in particular is hugely unfortunate to be overlooked, with Iain Henderson preferred for his ability to operate at six too.

Gatland has said that this is the strongest squad of the three he has worked with, as a Lions coach in 2009, 2013 and this year. He has a point.

There is considerable quality almost across the board - a list of those who have missed out would prove that beyond all doubt.

There is considerable experience in the ranks and it is a benefit to Warburton that he will be able to lean on Alun Wyn Jones for leadership support.

Wales have done well with their 12-strong contingent - some would say too well, but Gatland trusts men of pedigree, who he knows to rise above recent spells of indifferent form.

That is fair enough. They have earned the benefit of the doubt.

Scots will be aggrieved at having just two representatives - Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour - but that is a fatal consequence of brutal defeats for the national team against England at Twickenham and for Glasgow at Saracens.

Ireland could have had more involved - Simon Zebo is one who will feel hard done-by.

Overall, the mood is up-beat. The squad looks promising.

Now to somehow forge unity and cohesion, with very little time to do so.

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS SQUAD
BACKS

Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Own Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben Te'o (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)

FORWARDS

Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadgh Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Mauro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Peter O'Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vuniopla (England), Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales)

- Daily Mail

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