It goes without saying that the Lions squad is full of great players. From the old heads of Sexton and AWJ to the young guns of Itoje and Sinckler. These 41 players are pound for pound the very best rugby players walking the earth right now. Cue New Zealanders furiously typing.
Now that that’s out of the way let’s tear them apart and find out why a team full of superstars is still not expected to win a series in New Zealand and might be hard pressed vs certain Super Rugby club sides.
Combinations and how they could fail or flourish.
The most obvious first thoughts are the combinations or the lack thereof within a multinational multi-team dynamic. But, let’s take a look at the combinations the Lions have and even pointlessly theorise on a starting squad that can now not exist.
The initial look at the full squad showed a strong core of English players. But, even more than that, it initially showed a core of Saracens forwards. With Mako Vunipola and Jamie George in the frontrow, Itoje and Kruis as locks and the recently withdrawn Billy Vunipola at eight. It appeared that Gatland may have wanted this formidable set-piece core to be used against the All Blacks come test time. This would, for me, have been a very smart option for a team that needs to bring combinations together very quickly. A ready meal of excellence in the shape of Saracen’s finest is now scuppered in part by Billy Vunipola’s injury, a sight all rugby fans are sad to see. However, I can still see this core of European champions making a very strong showing over the next few weeks. On balance now it is likely that the Irish props will make a very strong front row combination and the core may have to adapt quickly to their rhythm.
There are two further combinations in the backs that I think will shine more than others, one is talked about a lot and the other is much less analysed. These combinations are Sexton with Henshaw, who combine at the provincial and national level like clockwork and Jonathon Joseph (JJ) with Anthony Watson, who bounce off each other at every opportunity and create a very effective defensive force alongside their well-known attacking prowess.
Utilising these friendships and combinations will be a very calculated event and Gatland has chosen in the initial game to test the JJ-Watson combination. Not only is this first game a test but it is also used as a slow build into test level rugby. Gatland is allowing them to expand their combination alongside Sexton using the short time he has to force cohesion into a side that could look lost if they aren’t singing off the same hymn sheet. I can readily see the master tactician of Sexton being able to utilise the full potential of JJ and Watson and create a lethal attacking threat.
If we go deeper into the combinations chosen for this first game we will see that Sinckler and Marler have been chosen to provide a solid platform in the first game. Both being Quins boys they’ll know each other’s dark arts inside out. Now whilst this combination is not expected to be used at test level it should guarantee to be a strong and stable starting scrum with which the Welsh backrow can get used to playing off. This should allow Faletau, Warburton and Sexton to be able to focus on how they might link up at set piece when it comes to the biggest games of all. Stander, on the other hand, does not need this game time to build an understanding of Sexton’s rhythm and could do with a small break to heal up.
On top of this solid pack the Lions will need an assured back three come test time. The combination for the first game of Seymour, Watson and Hogg could have a very interesting end result. Now whilst Seymour is a fantastic winger he isn’t expected to start a test against New Zealand ahead of Watson, North, Nowell and Daly. However, he has a fantastic synergy with Hogg and this combination could go one of two ways. It could have a knock on effect where Hogg slips into a very comfortable and dangerous role during this first game and Watson follows suit playing off him. If this happens Watson and Hogg could very well put their names firmly into the ring as starting test players. The other way it could go is that Watson doesn’t quite click with Hogg and Seymour, and so Seymour could outshine Watson and push his way ever closer to a starting test spot.
From this article alone there appears to be a lot of pressure on Watson to prove himself and I think Gatland is certainly using this first game to discover more about Mr Anthony Watson and whether he has the mettle to take up that 14 shirt. Overall I like this first team selection by Gatland to test his known combinations and combine them with a few unknowns to build into the tougher matches.
Lastly, let us hope the delivery and synergy between Laidlaw and Sexton isn’t too weak and wobbly or we might see an early collapse for all these very important combinations.
Come on the Lions!