7 of the best, worst and most bewildering Lions squad decisions

Selecting Sam Warburton is a smart move but where are Best, Robshaw and Visser?

Sam Warburton fronts the Lions brains trust.
Sam Warburton fronts the Lions brains trust.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

THE SELECTION DUST has finally settled and Sam Warburton, in the absence of soccer style armbands, stood proudly with the fluffy Lions lion that screamed ‘I am captain and I am comfortable with expressing my feelings’ to the Wallabies.

There were some surprise selections, head nods of agreement and squeals of horror during the announcement at offices [now with extra windows]. We took some deep breaths, had some lunch, and are now becalmed enough to run down the best, worst and most bizarre of coach Warren Gatland’s decisions.

Murray selected over Laidlaw

The selection of a scrumhalf that has come on leaps, bounds and tries in the past 12 months should placate some of the Munster core that were hoping for Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony to travel. Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw would have been able to cover scrumhalf and outhalf positions, a handy option as only Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton will travel. The Scot has an excellent conversion rate from the kicking tee and knows what it is like to beat the Aussies on their own turf. Gatland, however, is looking for consistency and Murray’s similarities to Mike Philips – the presumptive, starting No.9 – perhaps went in his favour.

A second row of genuine menace

The Lions second row is extremely strong and this is one area where the tourists should trump the Aussies. Paul O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones add inspiration and gritty gravitas, Ian Evans shored up the Welsh second row during the Six Nations and Richie Gray, a man lucky to make the plane, will hope to rediscover the form of 2011 and ’12 that had him placed firmly in the world-class bracket.

While Evans was fortunate to get the nod over Donnacha Ryan, Gatland’s big call was opting for Geoff Parling instead of Joe Launchbury, the young lock that earned column miles [rather than inches] of praise during the Six Nations. Parling is a player with bite and indefatigable intensity. He played all 80 minutes of four England games in the Six Nations and was withdrawn from the Italy game after 45 minutes with his side leading 15-3.

Alun-Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell in 2009. (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Maitland and Bowe over Zebo and Visser

Gatland has effectively chosen three 14s with Leigh Halfpenny another right wing option. Barring injury, George North will start on the left wing for the entire Test Series. Tommy Bowe, a player Gatland greatly admires, helped his selection cause by scoring tries and showing he could play on the left wing, and score, for Ulster. The glaring omission here is Tim Visser, a winger who is on course to win the Pro12 try-scoring title for the fourth year in succession and who took his form into the Test arena with Scotland. Sean Maitland, although a rough-house wing talent, is a fortunate Kiwi/Scot. Simon Zebo, another left winger of genuine class, will feel very unfortunate to miss out. The injury that kept him out of the Six Nations [England game onwards] looks to have cost him a spot on the plane despite his ability to cover fullback.

Jamie Heaslip over Ben Morgan

The Ireland captain tweeted ‘dreams do come true… ‘ after learning the good news of his selection today. He is fortunate that Gatland chose not to risk Ben Morgan, who was injured for most of the Six Nations but returned for Gloucester earlier this month. Peter O’Mahony has covered 8 for Munster to great effect in the past two seasons and would have been a mobile and a aggressive back-row option.

Heaslip showed Lions coaches Neil Jenkins, Graham Rowntree and Rob Howley what he could do – ball carries, line breaks and tries – on a good day, against Biarritz at the weekend. One suspects, however, that his similarities to Toby Faletau, who should start the Test matches at No.8 went in his favour.

4 Welshmen for 3 back row slots

While Irish supporters will be delighted to see Heaslip and Sean O’Brien named in the back row, the pair may have to set for supporting roles. Gatland has displayed massive faith in Dan Lydiate – Six Nations Player of the Tournament in 2012 but injured for most of this season. The loyalty shown to his Welsh back row unit, with Warburton now expected to start each Test, means a David Pocock-less Australian unit could find themselves rumbled by an all-Welsh division.

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Tob Faleta and Sam Warburton size up Sean O’Brien. (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

Vunipola and Stevens off to Oz

Horses for courses selections here with the Vunipola selection flagged in some quarters but Stevens’ name-check coming as a complete surprise. With most of the players fitted for, and photographed in, Lions jerseys and suits back in January, Saracens prop Stevens did well to keep a lid on his own measurement sessions. The 30-year-old was banned from the sport after testing positive for cocaine in 2009 and retired from England duty, after 39 caps, last year. One would not be agog to learn if the English props were the two vetoes held by forwards coach Graham Rowntree.

Hartley and Youngs over Best

Again, we look at this through green-tinted glasses but how in Paul O’Connell’s name is Rory Best not travelling to Australia? He erred twice, badly, in the Six Nations but surely his lineout throwing could have been worked on. With O’Connell and Jones in the second row, against the likes of Scott Higginbottom and James Horwill, Best should have had an easy enough task of locating his jumpers. The Ulster hooker is also an outstanding, extra loose forward and has led his province and country in the past. English back-up hooker Dylan Hartley, more so than Tom Youngs, got the nod ahead of Best. His selection is salt in the wound for Irish supporters.

Feel free to add your voice to the mix in our comments section, below.

As it happened: British and Irish Lions squad announcement

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Patrick McCarry

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