After months of debate and over-hype, the 2017 British and Irish Lions squad will be announced this Wednesday (19 April). Selection poses a unique challenge because a Lions squad is a snapshot of a moment in time. It is not about who has played well in the past, or may play well in the future. Not about who has had, or will have the best career. It is about who is in form right now.
The Lions will only have five games together before Warren Gatland has to pick his team for the first test, so most players will only get two games to prove themselves, leaving no room for those who need to play their way back into form or fitness.
Unlike regular international rugby, where coaches develop players for the future, a Lions squad has no future. Win now or win never.
Some of the best selections in modern Lions history recognised that form is everything. John Bentley had not played for England in nine years when he was a surprise selection in 1997, having only returned from rugby league at the start of the season with second division Newcastle. But the Falcons were early pioneers of professionalism and he was in form for a promotion-winning side. Ian McGeechan valued the professionalism of ex-rugby league players, in rugby union’s first season after amateurism. Bentley was a star of the tour on and off the pitch, his physical style well-suited to the South African game and his big personality suited to the spotlight.
After the tour, already in his 30s, he found his international opportunities limited, winning only two more caps for England as Clive Woodward favoured younger players. There can be few, if any, who have only gained four caps for their country, yet two for the Lions, let alone in a winning series, but Bentley was the right man in the right place at the right time.
Four years later, another rugby league man, Jason Robinson made the squad in 2001 despite not having played a full season of rugby union or started an international for England, because of his electric performances and rewarded the Lions with a brilliant and crucial try in the first test.
On the same tour, Rob Henderson hit form at the right time to capitalise on injuries and loss of form for bigger-names and was one of the best Lions in the narrow defeat to Australia. Henderson would end his career with only 29 Irish caps, but at that moment he was the man in form, and other recent tourists such as Jeremy Davidson, Geoff Parling, Riki Flutey and Ugo Monye have played well for the Lions despite not having extensive international careers.
A warning from history came from the disastrous 2005 tour, for which Clive Woodward relied heavily on his 2003 world cup-winning England team, rather than the in-form, grand slam-winning Welsh, and the defeat was comprehensive.
For 2017, this counts against Lions veterans such as Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Jamie Roberts, stalwarts of the last two tours, but struggling to hold on to their national team places this season. George North, before his return to form late in the Six Nations, might have been in the same boat.
It might also count against George Kruis, hotly tipped to go to New Zealand for his lineout expertise, and a seemingly guaranteed selection last year. But Kruis has played little rugby in 2017, none of it international. At one of the most competitive positions, Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, the Gray brothers and Ireland’s locks all have form and fitness, although early reports suggest that Gatland does not agree. Kruis may have played better than them last season and may do again next season, but the Lions are at their best when they are entirely men of the moment.
PROBLEMS AT 12
Possibly the Lions’ weakest position is inside centre. Reigning Six Nations champions England play an out-of-position Owen Farrell there, Wales have struggled to move on from Roberts, and while Robbie Henshaw and Alex Dunbar have done good work for Ireland and Scotland, neither has been exceptional.
England use Farrell to take pressure off George Ford and provide world-class kicking, but with Johnny Sexton, the Lions will have less need of that. Given how the Irishman takes risks with his own health by bringing the ball to the line, a second receiver might be useful, but Farrell might make as much sense covering Sexton from the bench, while a more physical ball carrier plays and helps get the team across the gainline.
That would fit with Gatland’s physical ‘Warrenball’ tactics, but whether he will be more expansive with the Lions than with Wales, with more players available to him, remains to be seen. If Farrell plays centre, it would free up enough game time for a third fly-half in the squad for the first time since 2005. If not, then Stuart Hogg might reprise his role as the third fly-half from Australia four years ago. Gatland’s decision at 12 should shine a light on his tactics for the series.