Lions Coach Warren Gatland has assembled one of the strongest-looking squads in recent history for the upcoming tour of New Zealand. Gatland fought hard to take one of the biggest Lions’ parties ever assembled; 41 players, four more than originally planned, at an extra cost of more than £600,000.
Welshman Sam Warburton will become the first Lions’ captain since Martin Johnson to lead successive Lions’ tours. The 28-year-old flanker is currently sidelined with a knee injury, but is expected to be fully fit before the start of the tour. The group looks well-balanced and has been widely praised, apart from North of border, due to Gatland’s selection of just two Scottish players; full-back Stuart Hogg and wing Tommy Seymour. Six Nations winner’s England contribute 16 tourists,alongside 11 Welsh and 10 Irish players.
Gatland, also coach of the Welsh national team, has faced accusations of bias over the selection of so many Wales players. Scotland demolished his side in an emphatic 29-13 victory at Murrayfield in February, but Gatland is a coach who has never been swayed by public opinion. He incurred the wrath of Ireland’s pundits and fans alike when dropping Brian O’Driscoll for Welsh centre Jonathan Davies in the 2013 Lions’ Test decider with Australia.
This year’s itinerary has been described as ‘suicidal’ by former New Zealand head coach Graham Henry, who spearheaded the Lions’ trip to Australia in 2001 and four years later was in charge of the All Blacks. On the 2005 tour, which was planned with military precision, the Lions faced provincial teams in the buildup to the Test series, but this summer they face all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, along with the Maori All Blacks.
The Lions’ brutal 10-game tour schedule begins with six ‘warm-up’ matches; the first taking place against New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on June 3, before the first Test against the All Black at Eden Park, Auckland on June 24. The last time the Lions toured New Zealand in 2005, Clive Woodward’s side won all seven matches against the provincial sides, but suffered heavy defeats in the three Test matches and were narrowly defeated by the New Zealand Maori team.
The first Test of the 2005 series saw inspirational Irish centre O’Driscoll infamously spear-tackled by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu after just 41 seconds, leaving him with a dislocated shoulder and ruling him out of the remainder of the tour. Umaga never apologised for his actions and branded O’Driscoll a ‘sock’; New Zealand slang for a cry baby.
Former England legend Jeremy Guscott, a member of a select band of British and Irish internationals who made the Lions’ Test side on three consecutive tours, believes the Lions have right blend in their squad. “The players are good enough to win the series, the challenge will be whether they can,” Guscott said.
“New Zealand at home are pretty much unbeatable. The statistics and a great deal of logic suggests a Lions’ win would be unlikely, but they have the best possible chance. This is a talented squad of players. They have an opportunity to create a serious part of history against the best team in the world.”