The waiting is almost over. On Wednesday, Warren Gatland will put players, pundits and arm chair fans out of their collective misery by announcing his squad for the upcoming Lions Tour to the land of the long white cloud. A Lions expedition is always greeted with feverish expectation by rugby fans and the sense of anticipation is more acute when the touring destination is New Zealand. You see, a Lions Tour to New Zealand is the closest thing to mission impossible in international rugby. The scratch representative side has only managed one successful series win in New Zealand: 1971. Other tours to the country have been met with heartbreaking, inevitable, inglorious failure.
Expectations are marginally higher this time on the back of the magnificent series win mustered in Australia last time and the abundance of talent that Gatland and his coaching team currently have at their disposal. Still, no-one is under any illusions about the magnitude of the unenviable task at hand. This is indeed the toughest assignment in rugby. In order to prevail, the Lions need to upset not only one of the greatest rugby squads ever selected but also rugby history in the process. From an Irish viewpoint, there are several certainties for the plane, while others face an anxious, nail-biting wait. In terms of the safer prospects, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw and skipper Rory Best seem virtually guaranteed to make the trip; deserved recognition for their consistent and imperious form in recent seasons.
Where it gets interesting is consideration of the possibles and bolters. One imagines that Simon Zebo, for all his faults and mercurial nature, is likely to travel on account of his versatility, while Iain Henderson’s recent return to form and fitness should see him land one of the keenly contested second row berths. Similarly, Sean O’Brien’s physicality and dynamism could see him grab one of the back row slots, but as with the engine room, the competition there is frighteningly fierce and few will be surprised if Gatland includes a liberal sprinkling of Welshmen to contest what is going to be a mouth watering battle at the breakdown.
O’Brien’s fortune could come at the expense of CJ Stander, as it’s unlikely Gatland will accommodate them both given the bountiful back row resources at his disposal. I notice that many of the preview squads in today’s papers include Peter O’Mahony as a nailed on Test starter. O’Mahony is undoubtedly a tremendous rugby player, but my hunch is that he’ll be lucky to make Gatland’s squad let alone the Test team. The Cork man is certainly a thoroughbred, but may suffer due to the aforementioned competition for back row places and a season frustratingly curtailed by injury. Unjust as it seems, the Munster warrior might have to settle for a place on the standby list.
As regards the captaincy, Sam Warburton appears to be earmarked for the role and seems certain to be named squad skipper provided his recent injury can be shaken off on time. Although it would do my heart good, I can’t see Ireland’s Best landing the cherished accolade. A Lions captain must be not only a supreme leader of men but a guaranteed Test starter. As impressive as the Ulster man has been in recent seasons, he’s far from a certain starter even if he is fortuitous enough to make Gatland’s squad. That said, everyone in Irish rugby will wish Best well in his bid to oust the indisciplined and controversial Dylan Hartley. Cardiff stalwart Warburton is indeed a fine player and trusted captain. If the captaincy predictions are correct, he deserves the opportunity to reprise his leadership role from 2013 when injury deprived him of the chance to lead the pride in the decisive third Test.
As fun as the guessing games are, they will soon be academic as Gatland finally reveals his hand. In terms of composition, England are sure to have a sizeable contingent and history tells us that a Gatland coached Lions squad will contain a formidable Welsh presence. After all, the Lions’ Kiwi coach will want as many players as possible already schooled in the ways of “Warren Ball.” The smallest contingent will probably come from Scotland, but players of the calibre of Stuart Hogg and Johnny Gray have plenty to contribute if called upon.
However, despite a mixed bag of a Six Nations, there is every indication that there’ll be a strong green tint on the perilous road to potential Lions glory. While that’s wonderful to see, one of the best features of the Lions tours is the manner in which they transcend national and regional rivalries. A unifying force that brings together sports men from Britain and Ireland in common cause. United. Where else would you see it? The task is as tough as ever but no less tantalising for that. To paraphrase the great Jim Telfer, this is their Everest. New Zealand are in a virtually unassailable position atop the rugby world but the 2017 Lions are about to roar.
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