Warren Gatland has named a British and Irish Lions squad with plenty of surprises for the tour of South Africa, with New Zealander Bundee Aki among the bolters in the side.
Several big names were snubbed as Gatland mostly opted for form over reputation.
One selection in particular, picking Exeter No 8 Sam Simmonds over Kyle Sinckler, was labelled by one commentator as "a slap in the face for Eddie Jones", with Gatland opting for the player that has been continually overlooked by the England coach.
After a warm-up game against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26, the six-week Lions tour is scheduled to start in July and currently will feature five matches against South African domestic and development teams before three tests.
South Africa has had more than 1.5 million reported cases of Covid-19 and more than 54,000 deaths. Its cases have been driven since late last year by a variant that experts says is more contagious.
Only 353,000 people out of a population of around 60 million have been vaccinated and they are health workers. Vaccines have not been rolled out for the general public.
It is still uncertain if fans will be allowed into games. SA Rugby has been trying to convince the South African government, with the hope to have 50% capacity in stadiums.
Gatland's shock squad
In the great Alun Wyn Jones, Gatland went with world rugby's safest pair of hands as his captain for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
The surprises were saved for elsewhere in the highly anticipated squad announcement.
One of the mostly evenly spread selections in Lions history saw some of the northern hemisphere's biggest names get overlooked.
No Jonathan Sexton, the Ireland captain who was world player of the year as recently as 2018 and top scorer in this year's Six Nations.
No Billy Vunipola, the No. 8 who has provided much of England's go-forward in the successful Eddie Jones era.
No Jonathan Davies, the reliable Wales center who was the Lions' player of the drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017.
Gatland, understandably, wanted to focus on the players who were selected to go on a tour that was under threat until last month — and still carries with it major uncertainties because of the pandemic.
In a Lions squad that largely reflected this year's highly competitive Six Nations, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland all had eight to 11 representatives.
Eight Scots is the country's highest number since 1989, perhaps showing the influence that Scotland coach Gregor Townsend — one of Gatland's assistants — had on selection. One of them is Duhan van der Merwe, a South African-born winger who played for South Africa Under-20s before switching nationalities, and was the top try-scorer in the Six Nations with five.
Jones, tour captain for the first time and in his his fourth straight Lions squad, is one of 10 players from Six Nations champion Wales.
England had 11, a lower-than-anticipated contingent which highlighted the team's struggles in the Six Nations but included Sam Simmonds — a No. 8 without a test cap since March 2018. Quite why he has been ignored by Jones is a mystery, given he is the reigning European player of the year and a superstar for European champion Exeter.
Ireland's eight players did not include 35-year-old Sexton, a player Townsend called one of the "best players in the world."
"Not only does it show the quality of the players we have in the squad," Townsend said, "it probably shows what's going to be a huge, physical demand on each player out there and he's been unfortunate to miss out because of those reasons."
Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell were the flyhalves chosen by Gatland, setting up what could prove to be the most competitive selection fights anywhere in the squad for the test series.
Other leading players overlooked were England pair Kyle Sinckler and Jonny May, and Ireland lock James Ryan. That Aki was selected ahead of Ireland teammate Garry Ringrose was another nod to the physicality Gatland wants to throw at the Springboks, who haven't played a game since winning the World Cup in November 2019 due to the pandemic.
"It's probably using the experience from the last tour, back in 2009," said Gatland, who was an assistant coach that year when the Lions lost a brutal test series 2-1. "We played pretty well in the lead-up but the physicality they brought to the first test was something we weren't quite ready for."
One player Gatland couldn't do without is Jones.
He is one of the most respected players in rugby and holds the world record for test appearances at 157, nine of which have come in the last three Lions series. He led Wales to the Six Nations title in March and has been captain of his country on a permanent basis since 2017, when he was handed the role by then-Wales coach Gatland.
Jones was stand-in captain for the series-clinching victory over Australia in the third test in 2013, when Sam Warburton was injured, but has never been tour captain.
The lock is the oldest player to captain the Lions in the professional era and is likely to form a second-row partnership with England's Maro Itoje, who was also in the frame for the captaincy.
British and Irish Lions squad:
Forwards: Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Jack Conan (Ireland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Tom Curry (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Jonny Hill (England), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, captain), Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Ken Owens (Wales), Andrew Porter (Ireland), Sam Simmonds (England), Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Hamish Watson (Scotland).
Backs: Josh Adams (Wales), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Chris Harris (Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ali Price (Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales).
'Gatland's Lions squad is a slap in the face for Eddie Jones'
The Lions' selection of Simmonds, who has continually been overlooked by Jones for England despite his impressive form, is another example the differences between Gatland and his old Aussie rival, writes the UK Telegraph's Gavin Mairs.
"By picking Sam Simmonds, and not selecting Kyle Sinckler for his British and Irish Lions squad, Warren Gatland has delivered the most stinging of rebukes to Eddie Jones," Mairs wrote in a column for The Telegraph.
"Gatland has shown no hesitation in delivering the Australian – an old rival – a slap in the face with his previous Lions picks, but this year's could be the most emphatic of all.
"Four years ago, Gatland opted not to bring Dylan Hartley, who was England's first-choice hooker, preferring to select his understudy Jamie George, who went on to start all three Tests for the Lions against New Zealand. That signalled the beginning of the end of Hartley's England career.
"Sinckler was also a rookie selection and ended up making the Test squad before breaking into England's starting XV on his return.
"The inclusion of Simmonds this year, however, is likely to cause greater unease at Twickenham, given that Jones has persisted to overlook the Exeter No 8 despite his stand-out form in the Premiership and in Europe.
"The last of Simmonds's seven caps was as far back as March 2018, despite the fact that he was named European player of the year last season and is currently the highest try-scorer in the Premiership."
Mairs says if Simmonds performs for the Lions, it would add more pressure to the already under-fire Jones.
"Should Simmonds excel in the red of the Lions, it would turn further heat on the selection policy of Jones, who steadfastly remained invested in Vunipola, hoping he would return to the form that earned him a selection for the tour of New Zealand in 2017 before he withdrew at the 11th hour to undergo surgery.
"Jones has consistently argued that Premiership form alone does not translate to the international stage, but Gatland clearly believes the forward can give him a point of difference against the Springboks."
- with AP