A British and Irish Lions' Coulda-Shoulda By-The-Phones Matchday 23
The time has come to second-guess Warren Gatland’s Lions’ picks and suggest who else could or should be on the plane to New Zealand. But we’re not going to do that. Here, in case of injury or ill-discipline only, James Harrington names a matchday 23 of players who should probably keep themselves match fit. Just in case (sorry, Jim Hamilton)
It’s hard to argue with Warren Gatland’s 41-man Lions’ squad for the rapidly approaching tour of New Zealand – unless you’re Scottish. Or Joe Launchbury.
But, because there’s plenty of time between now and the end of the northern hemisphere club seasons for selected to players get injured or banned (looking your way, Dylan Hartley) that’s just what we’re going to do.
Let’s not forget Alex Corbisiero, who had a great tour of Australia four years ago, was one of nine replacements called up after the original squad was named. And future Lions’ legend Martin Johnson first donned the red jersey as a replacement for Wade Dooley in 1993.
So, here it is: a By-Their-Phones Lions’ matchday 23 of players who should probably keep up the disciplined training regime and not leave their mobiles switched off while they take in a post-season leisurely browse the supermarket booze aisle.
Missed the 2013 tour with injury (Corbisiero replaced him, and remember how well that worked out for the England man), so will have been disappointed not to get the nod this time. Until Mako Vunipola’s return, and Joe Marler’s ferocious (and ultimately successful) bid to steal Rob Evans’s seat on the plane, the Leinsterman looked a plane-bound certainty. Surely top of the front row replacement list, with Evans or England’s Ellis Genge not far behind.
The Welsh Furlong-Coles Mini-Me missed out on the first cut because he’s not young Quin Kyle Sinckler – who is going to the Land of the Long White Cloud thanks to his in-the-loose oomph off the bench. But, if either Coles or Furlong do come a cropper, Lee must be the one to get an early-morning call.
Still no Dylan Hartley, despite All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen’s claim that he would have picked the England captain if he had been in charge of the Lions (fact check: he probably wouldn’t). Cronin missed the Six Nations with injury – and ran out of time to prove his fitness. As he doesn’t have the Kruis factor, that counted against him. Don’t be surprised if the Leinster man gets a call from the Big G if one of his trio come a cropper. Besides, he did this to Dan Biggar:
Yeah. It’s true. You didn’t dream it. He really wasn’t picked for the Lions. But, if he’s not on speed dial on Gatland’s Lions’ batphone, there is no hope for humanity.
Gets the nod over either one of the Gray boys due entirely to what he did to the All Blacks’ lineout in Chicago last October. Yes, that’s one epic performance among many in one match – and, yes, he was dropped in the Six Nations – but on such small things are Lions’ cover hopefuls’ chances measured.
Robshaw may be forgiven for thinking Gatland has something against him, after he missed out on the Kiwi’s two Lions tours. This time at least, it’s more likely because he missed the Six Nations with injury. But if O’Mahony or Stander get a knock, the former England skipper will run and tackle and ruck and jackal all day long, and most of the night, too.
A Scot! A veritable Scot! Albeit one born in Aldershot, but he plays for Scotland so it counts. Wilson’s just not as visible as yer Billy Vunipolas, Faletaus, or Heaslips (another who hasn’t made it – and who was edged out in favour of Wilson, here, to curry favour with Scottish fans) but he’ll do all the hard work really well. All the time.
A second Scot (from Manchester – but he was so proud of his Scottish heritage he had a Saltire in his bedroom as a boy. True story). Watson would have been on many an armchair pundits’ Lions’ shortlist following a fine Six Nations. And not just Scottish armchair pundits, either. Besides, he’s a 100% guaranteed proper openside, and they’re rocking horse-shit rare in rugby in the top half of the world. As the openside stock on the current squad shows.
replacement finisher for England during the Six Nations will not have helped Care’s Lions cause but there are few better snipers available to the Lions than the gobby Harlequins’ nine with the short-back-and-sides from hell.
The England debacle apart, Russell was at times utterly mesmerising during the Six Nations, and must be cursing his ill-luck at being a genuine and bone fide Scot in a coin-toss between him and Welshman Dan Biggar for the fourth and final fly-half berth. Got to be a favourite for the call, especially as he can do a job in midfield, too.
The Exeter man is one of those players who can be jaw-droppingly brilliant or frustratingly ordinary. Picked here, at inside centre, on the assumption that pulling on a hypothetical Lions shirt will bring out the amazing in him – but he can also fill a hole at 10 and 15. Handy, that.
Another victim of a gut call from Gatland, who decided at the very end that he had to have the twinkle toes of Jonathan Joseph. The best advice for Ringrose is to keep his phone charged and close by. A future Lion for definite.
The Scot from the Netherlands is big enough to pack down in the back row and quick enough to give defenders the vapours. Think George North.
You want pace? He’s got pace. And then he’s got some more in reserve. And he’s difficult to tackle because he’s made entirely of knees. If voice of rugby Bill McLaren had seen Jonny May play, he’d be the ‘mad octopus’ of commentary legend, rather than Simon Geoghegan.
A real bolter this pick, given that Carbery is nominally a fly-half, but anyone who saw his performance out of position at 15 for Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final against Wasps will understand. And he allows extra options on the bench.
Ellis Genge: Opted for Genge, as opposed to Evans, just so everyone can howl GENGE! if the Leicester man gets his hands on the ball. Also, he’s a pretty decent prop. Which is useful. Discipline, however, can be a failing, which in New Zealand is not so useful.
Zander Fagerson: The young Scot really took his chance during the Six Nations with WP Nel sidelined. While this Lions tour has come a year or so too soon for the young Glasgow Warrior, expect to see his name in lights in four years’ time. And, if major problems do develop at tighthead, he must be on Gatland’s list of cover suspects.
Dylan Hartley: Go on, then, just because Hansen said he should be there. Besides, a 94% win rate as England captain suggests he’s done okay at international level recently.
Jonny Gray: Gets the nod ahead of big brother Richie due to his tireless tackle-and-carry rate. Plenty of decent lineout jumpers from four to eight in the first Lions’ tranche, so there’s no need for Gray the Elder’s extra height straightaway.
Donnacha Ryan: Late, late Six Nations heroics give the no-nonsense Munster man a longshot. Usually plays lock, but has been known to pack down in the back row.
Greig Laidlaw: Was playing some fantastic rugby before injury scuppered his Six Nations – and one last Lions shot. Just returning to the Gloucester first team, and while he would probably not trouble the test side even as a replacement, he’d be a great late addition to the squad. And he can kick it.
Keith Earls: A wing who’s almost equally effective at outside centre. Priceless.
Rob Kearney: Barrett and Cruden love to test the back three with high bombs. Kearney eats high bombs for breakfast.
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