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Lions Squad Reaction: No Room for Sentiment

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Lions Squad Reaction: No Room for Sentiment

At approximately 12.30 on Thursday afternoon, Lions Chairman Jason the ‘Fun Bus’ Leonard announced Warren Gatland’s 37-man touring squad for South Africa. Amongst the names read out were the heavily fancied Skipper Alun Wyn Jones. The Ospreys lock and Welsh stalwart looks set to travel on his fourth tour, second in South Africa. Others such as Stuart Hogg and Robbie Henshaw join Jones in causing little surprise with their selection. Nevertheless, as with every Lions tour there’s some selections which cause more of a stir than others, whether that be through inclusion or omission.

The shock omissions of two-time tourists Jonathan Sexton and Jonathan Davies, each with six Lions test caps apiece, very much shows that there’s no room for sentiment in sport. Prolific winger Jonny May’s exclusion has caused great debate, as well as his English teammate Kyle Sinckler’s leaving out. As for the men heading to South Africa, Leinster and Ireland no.8 Jack Conan looks to lead the group of unlikely selections, with peers Sam Simmonds and Chris Harris following.

As ever, Warren Gatland hasn’t shown any fear in making ‘big calls’ in selection. We’ve seen this previously when he dropped Brian O’Driscoll for third test in 2013. Showing no room for sentiment in denying an all time great his swansong. Another example was the injury cover call up of a 36 year old Shane Williams on the same tour.

 

Surprise Omissions

Jonathan Sexton: Ireland and Leinster – Fly Half

Perhaps, the most likely to miss out but just as much unlucky too is Jonathan Sexton. The man with 99 Irish caps to his name falls victim to question marks over his durability, on what will surely be a very attritional tour. Sexton, who has battled numerous injuries and a particularly high number of concussions in recent seasons, again missed an important tie through Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocol during Leinster’s Champions Cup Semi-Final defeat to La Rochelle last weekend. Combine that with the strength in depth of the position with fellow out-halves Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell and Finn Russell travelling, it is arguably the least surprising omission.

Despite this, you can’t help but feel for the Dubliner.

On ability alone, there is no question that Sexton has the quality to be on the plane, proof lying in his 5 starts of the last 6 Lions test matches. Accompany that with a rich vein of form in this years Six Nations, see’s the 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year amongst the most unlucky to be left out.

Sexton’s left victim to a game where little room for sentiment lies.

 

Jonathan Davies: Wales and Scarlets – Centre

2017 man of the series, Jonathan Davies is another big omission by Gatland who cited questions over both his form and fitness as reason to leave Davies at home. After a bright but unremarkable Six Nations with Wales, Davies showed glimpses of previous form as he returned to the Welsh frame. Partnering with fellow Welsh stalwart George North, Davies led the Welsh defensive efforts marshalling the backline that included the inexperienced Rees-Zammit and the newly converted centre North. A combination of solid performances alongside North made it seem as if Davies was kicking into form just at the right time.

Nevertheless, there’s no room for sentiment in sport, particularly when selecting a Lions squad. On passed accomplishments alone Davies looked a nailed on option at Centre. Besides, with his proven track record of six test caps and as complete a skillset as one could wish for, it is surprising that Davies hasn’t travelled. Not to mention the trust he’s earned under Gatland previously.

 

Jonny May: England and Gloucester – Wing

Up until England’s most recent Six Nations collapse, May looked for many as a shoe-in for Lions selection. Unlucky not to tour in 2017, May has since added a further 25 international tries to his tally, in turn becoming a main-stay in England’s starting lineup and one of the most prolific try scorers in the world. However, after varying levels of form since his return to Kingsholm; unaided by the departure of Danny Cipriani and injuries to Gloucester Fly-halves, a below par Six Nations has hurt May’s bid.

Furthermore, the unlikely emergence of Gloucester teammate Louis Rees-Zammit and Edinburgh based Duhan Van Der Merwe have definitely played a big part in keeping May off the plane. Both men played starring roles in strong campaigns for their nations in this years Six Nations, and in their short International careers boast prolific scoring tallies of 5 tries in 9 games for Zammit and 8 tries in 10 games for Van Der Merwe.

Van der Merwe offers a larger physical presence than May, demonstrating devastating ability to win collisions and break a number of tackles on his way to the try line. On what will be a brutally physical tour, in the warm up games and at test level, Van Der Merwe holds attributes that look of great use on this years tour.

As for Rees-Zammit, he is likened to the rapid finisher mould of May. Although, the young Welshman has displayed arguably a more well-rounded game during his short time on the international scene. It’s his superb Six Nations form that seems to be the key reason for why he’s edged out Jonny May.

It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t May’s best opportunity for a Lions Tour. By time the next tour rolls round May will be 35 years of age, so it’s difficult to think he’ll be in a stronger position to claim a jersey than this year. If this tour was 12 months earlier, May would almost certainly have made the test team.

Gatland has shown that there’s no room for sentiment with his squad selection. For now May remains at home and will likely be the next best if an injury does occur.

 

Kyle Sinckler: England and Bristol – Tighthead Prop

Another big name that missed out was England Tighthead Kyle Sinckler. The Bristol prop has been the number 1 option for Eddie Jones at Tighthead and has filled the void left by the ageing mainstay Dan Cole superbly. After a poor Six Nations for England, Sinckler was one of the few players who garnered much praise for his strong performances, often playing 70 minutes or more.

A solid scrummager but renowned as a very capable ball player, Sinckler was a favourite for the test side alongside Tadgh Furlong. Nevertheless, at times Sinckler’s discipline has been questioned, more so by Gatland himself who described the English prop as an ’emotional time-bomb’ in 2019.

Instead of Sinckler, Gatland’s team have opted for the stronger scrummaging options in Ireland’s Andrew Porter and Zander Fagerson. Porter getting the nod for his ability to play both sides of the scrum and Fagerson likely due to his solid showing for Scotland during this years Six Nations.

As it stands, Sinckler, who made 3 test appearances on the 2017 tour, will not add to his tally. Nevertheless, he’ll join Welsh Tighthead Tomas Francis as the two best options if any of the 3 touring Tightheads suffer an injury.

 

James Ryan: Ireland and Leinster – Second-Row

At 24 years old, James Ryan has already achieved so much in the game and looked destined to add to his ever-growing CV with a Lions call up. Nevertheless, it wasn’t to be for the Blackrock native who will be left wondering where it all went wrong. The man who’s been tipped by many as the next great Irish lock has largely lived up to his billing, already captaining his nation and leading their line out.

The Second-Row position was one of the most hotly contested positions on the tour. A position with options such as Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, and Jonny Hill, thus it is plausible why Ryan missed out. Despite this, his strength at the set piece and leadership credentials made him a prime candidate for a slot and even in contention for Lions captaincy.

Ryan had a solid Six Nations campaign, although he was hampered by two HIA’s which saw him miss two games. In the wake of Ryan’s absence, his teammates Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson stepped up and played massive roles in guiding Ireland to third in the Championship after losing their two opening games. The form and versatility of both Beirne and Henderson catapulted them into Lions contention and eventually into the squad.

Ryan is another candidate that is unlucky to miss out and falls victim to the strength in depth at his position. Entering selection in competition with inform international teammates Beirne and Henderson, it’s easy to see why Ryan hasn’t travelled. Even so, my sympathies do go out to the Leinster Lock.

That being said, there isn’t room for sentiment when you’re about to head to South Africa for a test series.

Albeit a mere consolation, Ryan still has a bright future ahead. If his career continues at its current trajectory he will almost certainly be a Lion in the future.

 

Billy Vunipola: England and Saracens – Number 8

The exclusion of Billy Vunipola is somewhat of a surprise. The Saracens Number 8 has dealt with varying levels of form over recent months, battling against the wrath of the media with calls for Sam Simmonds to take his England jersey. Nevertheless, Vunipola had shown some signs of improvement as the Six Nations went on. Performing solidly against both Wales and France. Contrary to this, Vunipola’s form was still a distance off the world-class performances we’ve become accustomed to.

An original member of the 2017 tour, Vunipola had to withdraw because of a shoulder injury, giving England teammate James Haskell a call up.

On form, Vunipola’s omission shouldn’t be a surprise. However, the physical presence alone of Vunipola is seen in very few. A destructive ball carrier and strong defender, it’s hard not to imagine a Lions Tour to South Africa without his inclusion.

 

Surprise Inclusions

Jack Conan: Ireland and Leinster – Number 8

Arguably, the most surprising selection was Leinster Number 8 Jack Conan. Conan, who excelled in Ireland’s Six Nations victory over England; assisting a superb Keith Earls try with a tip pass from the line-out which set the winger free, has battled back against injuries and mixed form over the passed 18 months.

The Six Nations win against England was Conan’s first start in an Irish jersey since the World Cup warm up match against Wales in 2019.

Since then the loose forward has performed strongly for club, winning the Pro 14 final against Munster and playing a key role in the European Cup Quarter Final win away at Exeter, before finally falling short to La Rochelle in the next round.

Likened to fellow touring Number 8’s Sam Simmonds and Toby Faletau, Conan others a solid ball playing option at 8. He’s a quick and agile player that very much represents a trend in choice of Number 8 by Gatland for the tour. Gatland’s selection see’s a more mobile, ball playing mould of Number 8 picked. An approach to combat the threat of a South African back row which is likely to feature Kolisi, Du Toit and Vermeulen. This is preferred to the crash ball style of Number 8 you can find in Vunipola and CJ Stander. The latter missing out on a last hurrah before retirement, another example that there is no room for sentiment when selecting a Lions squad.

As to whether Conan makes a test appearance is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the Wicklow native enters the tour in as strong a vein of form as we’ve seen from him. An impressive campaign in the warm up matches could see a space on the bench for the man who claimed that he ‘wasn’t holding his breathe’ on a Lions call up only a couple of weeks ago.

 

Sam Simmonds: England and Exeter – Number 8

In many ways there should be no surprise on Sam Simmonds inclusion in Warren Gatland’s 37-man squad. The Exeter Chief has been in scintillating form for the last two seasons but particularly prolific this season scoring 16 tries in 17 Premiership appearances. The European Player of the Year has set a Premiership record for tries by a forward when he scored a brace in this weekends win over Worcester. The loose forward now only needs 2 more tries to break the overall record for tries scored in a Premiership season.

Despite his exceptional form, Simmonds has bizarrely been in exile from Eddie Jones England squad since 2018. His omission has puzzled many, drawing great media attention over the most recent Six Nations campaign.

Simmonds inclusion in the Lions squad is somewhat surprising because of his international absence. The complete saga regarding his international career is baffling, but it is even more unusual for a player who has been in the international wilderness for so long to be called up to the Lions squad.

Nevertheless, it is nothing more than Simmonds deserves. The Devonshire local has defied adversity and deservedly earned the highest accolade in British and Irish rugby by becoming a Lion.

Maybe there is room for some sentiment on a Lions Tour after all.

 

Chris Harris: Scotland and Gloucester – Centre

Another man who had flown under many a radar was Scotland and Gloucester Centre Chris Harris. The Cherry and White is another in form selection who’s stock had risen significantly during a strong Six Nations campaign.

Part of a growing line of talented backs emerging in the Scottish jersey, Harris has shown strong physical capabilities in both attack and defence. He played in each of Scotland’s Six Nations fixtures, playing a key part in the historic wins at Twickenham and in Paris, and has quickly become one of the first names on Gregor Townsend’s team sheet.

Harris has also been a scarce highlight in an underperforming Gloucester side. He’s created a strong partnership alongside Mark Atkinson with the pair carrying a strong load on both sides of the ball for the Cherry and Whites.

With the injury to George North it looks like the Lions 13 jersey could be well up for grabs. With Harris already fending off Lions squad challengers Henry Slade, Garry Ringrose and Jonathan Davies for a spot in the squad, who could look past Harris in going one further and making a test appearance.

 

Bundee Aki: Ireland and Connacht – Centre

The Centre position has been arguably the biggest talking point post Warren Gatland’s squad announcement. With huge names of Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies missing out; and as already mentioned, George North’s injury, some names very few predicted have made the cut. Bundee Aki is one of them.

But should we be surprised?

Aki offers an outstanding physical presence with the ability to generate go forward ball off every carry. Accompany that with his ability to distribute, Aki provides a very strong option at the centre position.

The Auckland born centre featured in only one of Ireland’s Six Nations fixtures, the impressive victory over England. Aki partnered former Connacht teammate Robbie Henshaw in the midfield and gave a dominant display until his sending off after 63 minutes. Still serving his four match ban, it seemed as if the rugby world had forgot about Aki and largely written off any chance at selection.

However, Gatland was left impressed with Irish midfielders performance. “The combination of Bundee and Robbie Henshaw was outstanding,” he further added “they can roll their sleeves up when it does get tough, but they can also play positive rugby.”

On what is sure to be an attritional tour. Aki will be looked on as an important option by Gatland in the hope to combat the South African physicality.

 

We hope you enjoyed the article ‘Lions Squad Reaction: No Room For Sentiment.’ Who was the biggest snub from Warren Gatland’s squad? Let us know!

 

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Joe O'Shea is a passionate sports fan who's recently joined the team at Sporting Ferret. Joe has recently graduated Manchester Metropolitan University with 2.1 honours in History and International Politics but is looking to transition into Sports Journalism at the postgraduate level in the near future. New to the game of sports writing, Joe will bring his sporting obsession as both a fan and a player to his writing. Joe specialises in Basketball in which he represented Manchester Metropolitan University. Other favourites include Rugby Union and Football but Joe also has strong interests in Formula 1; Darts; MMA and Horse Racing. Joe is also a long suffering Cheltenham Town fan and Gloucester Rugby supporter, his home town sides, as well as having a keen eye on Munster Rugby due to his family heritage in Cork. He is also a big supporter of the LA Clippers and resident member of the Al Boum Photo fan club. Contact: josephoshea2345@gmail.com Twitter: Joe_OShea25

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