British & Irish Lions
Plenty of tough decisions still to be made
ESPN's Ben Kay
April 30, 2013
Would Brian O'Driscoll have been your pick to lead the Lions to Australia? © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions squad may have been announced but don't expect the debate surrounding the selection to end just yet.
It is a strong squad on paper and is largely as expected bar a couple of notable omissions but you can see the logic behind them not being selected. That said, Chris Robshaw is desperately unlucky not be involved. There are a couple of positions where the Lions are a little bit light in terms options but unfortunately for Robshaw, flanker is not one of them. In fact, it is an area where the Lions are particularly strong.
Gatland clearly favours Warburton as he has made him his captain and he also has Justin Tipuric as an openside option with both of them out-and-out No.7s - something that perhaps gives them the edge on Robshaw. Croft will most likely start at No.6 given the form he is in and Dan Lydiate's recent return from injury with Toby Faletau at No.8. The fact that Sean O'Brien can play at flanker and No.8 has also counted against Robshaw. He has been in really good form but has missed out due to the quality available to Gatland the tactical approach the Lions are likely to adopt.
Jonny Wilkinson may have turned down the chance to tour but history tells us that Lions tours take their toll and you can still see him having a major impact somewhere along the way. He may have outplayed Owen Farrell at the weekend but Jonathan Sexton would still be my starting No.10 but I still have my concerns about the Irishman's fitness. You have got to remember that Sexton had a nasty hamstring injury in the Six Nations and those are the sort of injuries that can re-surface on a demanding tour with lots of games in a short period of time.
It was surprising to see Ireland's Rory Best miss out at hooker having been many people's choice as a Test starter but it appears his form in the Six Nations has cost him. Tom Youngs' selection is a bit more understandable given Graham Rowntree's respect for his ability. I don't think there is another hooker to rival what he can do off the bench and that role looks set to continue with Wales' Richard Hibbard currently in pole position.
Dylan Hartley's selection might have raised a few eyebrows given Gatland's disparaging comments about the Saints hooker in the past. But don't be fooled, Gatland has immense respect for Hartley because he doesn't make those kind of comments without thinking about the possible consequences - he likes his mind games.
Matt Stevens gets the nod despite having retired from international rugby last year which is credit to his Saracens form. Stevens is a good power scrummager but, like his Saracens team-mate Mako Vunipola who is also included, offers a bit more with the ball in hand. The Lions probably think that Australia are not strong enough scrummagers to warrant the need for six scrum specialists hence the inclusion of Stevens and Vunipola who could both make a really good impact off the bench with the likes of Cian Healy, Dan Cole, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones ahead of them in the prop pecking order.
The most predictable selection was that of Warburton as captain. He is obviously Gatland's man and a player he feels he can trust. You have such a short time to get that bond and it is so important because the captain is the link between the coaching staff and the players.
Personally, I would have gone for Brian O'Driscoll because of the experience he offers. If you speak to any of the guys that went on the 2001 tour, they will tell you that they missed a golden opportunity to claim a series victory. Having been part of that narrow defeat, I think it would fired up O'Driscoll who in turn would have inspired the rest of the squad. He's also someone with star quality in terms of how the opposition will view the Lions and deals with all the off-field stuff really well and I think he would have been the ideal captain. Warburton would have been my vice-captain on a tour that would have provided valuable experience. But having said that, there are so man leaders in the squad that it is not an area I am concerned about and I'm sure the likes of O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell will support Warburton all they can.
Looking ahead, there are still some tough decisions to be made. Who will they pick as the centre pairing? I would pick O'Driscoll at 12 and Tuilagi at 13 but that poses some potential problems with Manu leaving the line and Australia are one of the best sides at highlighting that lack of control. But with ball in hand those two could do some damage and then you have the Leinster team-mates of O'Driscoll and Sexton next to each other.
A lot will depend on what happens in the provincial games but if the Lions can generate some momentum and build some team spirit it will be the best opportunity they will have had to secure a series win in a long time - since 2001 - and, with New Zealand up next in 2017, the best opportunity they will have in quite a while.
Lions coach Warren Gatland congratulates captain Sam Warburton on his appointment © Getty Images
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
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