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‘La Rochelle reminded me of what we are going to face in South Africa’

Warren Gatland has explained why James Ryan and Johnny Sexton missed out on selection for the Lions.

Leinster lock James Ryan.
Leinster lock James Ryan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

LIONS HEAD COACH Warren Gatland has explained how La Rochelle’s impressive defeat of Leinster last weekend worked against James Ryan when he was finalising his 37-man squad to tour South Africa this summer.

Ryan has struggled for form since an injury-disrupted Six Nations and was one of a number of Leinster forwards who failed to impose themselves against La Rochelle’s powerful pack in the French sunshine last Sunday.

The 24-year-old lock has been a consistently reliable performer for much of his career and will be hugely disappointed to have missed out on selection for the Lions, although there was better news for fellow Ireland secondrows Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne, who can both also cover the backrow. 

“Look, there are a lot of tough calls,” Gatland said. 

“James was pretty unlucky. For us, it was getting that balance right with our secondrow and backrow options and having cover in those positions – players being able to play secondrow or backrow.

We saw an example last weekend with Leinster against La Rochelle and if you look at that match properly, La Rochelle reminded me of what we are going to face in South Africa. We are going to face big, physical men. They had Will Skelton, how direct they were coming off No 9.

“Probably the last couple of years, with Leinster in a couple of those big games, I know they were really good against Exeter (in the Champions Cup quarter-final), but we saw at the weekend and 12 months ago against Saracens in the European quarter-final, they’ve really gone hard at them physically up front and that challenge…”

Gatland also admitted he wasn’t convinced Leinster captain Johnny Sexton could withstand the physical demands of a tour to South Africa – something which kicking coach Neil Jenkins also touched on earlier today – leading him to select Finn Russell, Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell as his travelling 10s.

“There’s no doubt that was one of the toughest decisions that we had to make,” Gatland said.

“I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Johnny and his quality. But it’s such a pivotal position for us and it’s about sending a message to the No 10s we have selected that we have confidence and belief in them to do a job.

“When we looked at where we were going, to South Africa, probably the thing that kept coming back to us was Johnny’s durability. Being able to put a string of games together, consecutively big matches together. 

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“He has been rested on a number of occasions and unfortunately that’s possibly what swayed it for us in terms of us not having the confidence that he can get through what’s going to be a tough, physical tour.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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