Sportsmail debates issues facing Gatland in Lions squad announcement

Alun Wyn Jones or Maro Itoje as captain? Dan Biggar or Finn Russell at No 10? And who plays in the back row? An Englishman, Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman debate the big issues facing Warren Gatland ahead of his Lions squad selection

  • The British and Irish Lions will play three Tests against South Africa this summer  
  • A 36-man squad will jet off with Warren Gatland to face the world champions
  • Gatland though still has many issues to resolve ahead of naming his final squad
  • Sir Clive Woodward, Andy Nicol, Geordan Murphy and Mike Phillips debate them

Warren Gatland is set to take a 36-man British and Irish Lions squad to South Africa for five warm-up matches before three Tests against the world champions this summer, but he has plenty to ponder before naming his final set of players.

Here, Sportsmail‘s Sir Clive Woodward, Andy Nicol, Geordan Murphy and Mike Phillips debate the issues that Warren Gatland will be pondering over ahead of Thursday’s announcement.

The British and Irish Lions will take on world champions South Africa in three Tests this summer

Warren Gatland is set to take a 36-man squad on Thursday but still has issues to ponder

Here, Sir Clive Woodward (right), Geordan Murphy (left) and two others debate the issues

Woodward: There are only two candidates — Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje but I would go with Jones. He has all the experience in the world and on the evidence of the Six Nations is still a Lions starter. He also has much more knowhow about managing refs. Maro has very little captaincy experience although he is clearly an outstanding leader.

Nicol: If Warren Gatland just wanted a leader to galvanise the squad, with the respect he has from previous Lions tours and his international performances Alun Wyn Jones would have been the obvious choice for captain.

But the Lions need their captain to be a guaranteed pick for the Tests, which is why Itoje is the man to lead them. He is a leader by his actions. Looking through the lens of diversity and inclusion, it will be really good seeing both the Lions and South Africa having black captains.

Alun Wyn Jones has all the experience in the world and based on his Wales form is a starter

Murphy: It’s Alun Wyn Jones for me, too. Everyone wrote him off at the start of the Six Nations because of his age but he did a brilliant job. He’s a really competitive guy and everyone you speak to says he drives every training session. South Africa will have a big front five and he’s shown over the years that he can go head to head with the best.

Phillips: Everyone seems to be forgetting about Ken Owens. For me, Ken is the best guy to lead this tour. He epitomises what the Lions is about. He’s a people person, a great rugby guy and he’s a real ambassador. He’s not robotic or false. You need a sociable character and Ken’s the sort of unpretentious guy who will bring people together for a beer.

With the team being in a bubble, I think those sorts of qualities are more important than ever. He’s also a guaranteed starter in my book and has so much experience.

Maro Itoje is a leader by his actions, and it would good seeing both sides with black captains

Which are the toughest areas of selection debate?

Woodward: Back row. There are players like Josh Navidi, Jack Conan, Sam Underhill, James Ritchie and Matt Fagerson who have just missed out on my squad who could be flown in as injury replacements and immediately make an impact in the Test side.

There is so much strength in depth. Much will depend on how Warren envisages his Lions side playing and what he wants from his back row. Does he, for example, want a lineout presence in his Test back row. If so, Tadhg Beirne will surely start.

Nicol: You could pick a group of back rowers who won’t tour that would be absolute quality. There are players I have not selected such as Peter O’Mahony, Jamie Ritchie, Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill, Caelan Doris and Mark Wilson that are hugely talented.

Murphy: The blend of the back row is a good problem to have. There are world-class players across the board — including bolters like Sam Simmonds, Caelan Doris, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, Will Connors and Iain Henderson. There are so many combinations you could pick.

Phillips: Fly-half is always a tough call. Dan Biggar is the form player. He seems to be picking up man-of-the-match trophies every weekend and defensively he’s just what you need against the Springboks. Finn Russell could add attacking impact from the bench if you need to change the game.

Fly-half is always a tough call. Dan Biggar is the form player and is what they need defensively

Are the Lions worryingly short of options in any areas?

Murphy: I don’t think they’re short anywhere. South Africa will pose a big physical battle up front and the Lions will need to match that across the entire XV. The scrum will be a key element but the Lions have got front-row forwards who can hold their own.

Woodward: None of the scrum-halves from the Home Nations stamped his authority on the Six nations in the manner of Antoine Dupont for France.

I am slightly concerned as whoever starts will be going up against Faf de Klerk but I was encouraged Conor Murray seemed back to his best against England, and I have always been a fan of Gareth Davies when he is at full throttle and off the leash, trying to make things happen.

Nicol: I agree they could be stronger at scrum-half. There are a number of good No 9s but no stand-out ones. The players that excite me are quite inexperienced and I’ve gone with Tommos Williams as my third choice behind Conor Murray and Ben Youngs.

None of the scrum-halves matched Antoine Dupont in the Six Nations but Conor Murray seemed back to his best

Some of the younger players —Alex Mitchell who is doing well at Northampton, Dan Robson — I like. I have picked Murray and Youngs for my Lions squad and I would call both of them safe scrum-halves, rather than exciting.

Phillips: You could debate the scrum-half position for hours. The best three scrum-halves in the world right now are Faf de Klerk, Antoine Dupont and Aaron Smith. There’s no stand-out contender for the Lions. Wayne Pivac seems to have picked a new Wales scrum-half every game and England are probably due a change at No 9. Gareth Davies is the kind of guy who can come on in a Test in South Africa and perform outstandingly for the last 25 minutes.

Tomos Williams has more of a rounded game and would be my starting No 9. Conor Murray has been there and done it, so he’s got to be in the mix. People are talking about Danny Care but if he goes I must be in with a chance, too! If you’re reading this, Gats, I’m available.

Woodward: Centre is an interesting, slightly worrying position. For me, its Robbie Henshaw plus another. Can Jonathan Davies defy the years and past injuries? Is Gary Ringrose back to full fitness? Can Henry Slade shine again after being under used by England? Will Warren be tempted to gamble on Manu Tuilagi’s expected return to fitness.

Will Gatland be tempted to gamble on England’s Manu Tuilagi’s expected return to fitness?

Who are the potential bolters from outside current Test squads?

Woodward: Strangely, the main bolters are almost seasoned internationals. I have been critical of Danny Care and Joe Marler in recent seasons but both are in outstanding form for Quins and could, potentially, do a job for the Lions. They are also lively characters who could add to the dynamic on a testing tour.

Of the more traditional bolters — inexperienced players — Cameron Redpath is a strong candidate, although injury struck at a bad time for him in the Six Nations, while I have already gone with Sam Simmonds in my squad. He could be devastating in South African conditions.

Nicol: Sam Simmonds and Danny Care certainly wouldn’t be out of place in the Lions squad because they are playing really well at the moment. They have both played international rugby but are just not flavour of the month with their current national coach at the moment.

Sam Simmonds and Danny Care (above) certainly wouldn’t be out of place in the Lions squad

Murphy: They have both been playing superbly in the Premiership but, for me, Care is still just behind the others and the back row is just so competitive.

Phillips: A lot of Harlequins players aren’t in the England set-up, but they’ve been flying in the Premiership. 

Alex Dombrandt is a dynamic player who could offer some versatility across the back-row. There will be six or seven injuries by the time the Tests come around so there will be guys in the mix who we are not talking about now.

Alex Dombrandt is a dynamic player who could offer some versatility across the back-row

What are your criteria — form, reputation, size, versatility, character?

Nicol: All of the above. With such a short tour, Gatland will go with players he knows will deliver rather than hopes will deliver. Players like Jamie George and Owen Farrell —both of whom didn’t have a good Six Nations and are currently playing in the English Championship with Saracens.

You can’t feel confident about their form but they should be there because you have to take into account what they have achieved. You can’t keep harking back to the Lions four years ago because four years is a long time in rugby, but these two are Test match animals. They know how to step up and if they get into that elite environment and get time in the warm-up games they will be up to speed.

Hamish Watson is there on form while Finn Russell will be there because he will be a point of difference. Gatland could easily go with Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar and Farrell as his three stand-offs. But with Gregor Townsend as the attack coach, he will be pressing Gatland to pick Russell and give himself more options to work with at 10.

Gatland will go with players he knows will deliver like Owen Farrell rather than hopes will deliver

Versatility is also vital, which is why Iain Henderson and Tadgh Beirne, Liam Williams and Hugo Keenan are in my squad as they can play second row/back row; wing/full back.

Phillips: We lost our first game in 2009 because we got dominated in the scrum and the driving lineout. The pack pretty much got driven back from the halfway line. You’ve got to at least find parity there. Outside that, you’ve got to keep the tempo high and move these big Springboks around. Finn Russell can add real tempo from the bench and you need dynamic forwards who will be one step ahead of their opposite man.

Murphy: It’s form first, reputation second. Dan Biggar is the form 10 right now and he starts for me. The Boks will play exactly like they did against England in the World Cup final — competing hard up front and then putting the ball in the air. They’re not going to start slinging the ball around.

The smallest player in that Lions squad is probably Finn Russell and he’s not small. Versatility is important in a small squad and you’ve got that with guys like Liam Williams, Owen Farrell, Anthony Watson and Tadhg Beirne.

The smallest player in that Lions squad is probably Finn Russell and the Scot is not small

Woodward: Form is always paramount. Every single player who gets on that plane must be capable of starting the First Test in Johannesburg on July 24. Injuries happen and players get catapulted into key roles in the Test series. Think of a young Jerry Guscott in 1989; Paul Wallace, Tom Smith and Jeremy Davidson in 1997, Alex Corbisiero in 2013.

In 2005, only one player — Paul O’Connell — was available from my original inked-in team for the First Test by the time of the Third Test in Auckland!

After pure form comes a proven Lions track record. Gatland knows the likes of Jonny Sexton, Gareth Davies and Owen Farrell have been there and got the T-shirt for the Lions. That will be part of the selection equation this week.

Who are the unlucky players who don’t make your squad?

Phillips: Probably a couple of the guys at Saracens. Jamie George, Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola. A couple of years ago they were all nailed on and being relegated to the Championship hasn’t helped. Owen Farrell just sneaked into my squad ahead of Garry Ringrose, which was a tough call.

Woodward: Undoubtedly Finn Russell — a few months ago I had him starting. He plays in such a different way to the other No 10s and I don’t feel Warren is comfortable with this type of player in the pivotal role. I have a high regard for young Redpath who is a terrific player but I’ve got a feeling he might just miss out because the Lions need some real firepower in midfield.

Obviously, back row is such an area of strength that any number of top operators will miss out, headed by Underhill, Navidi and Ritchie. Who would be a selector?

Nicol: Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie, Billy Vunipola Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell, Manu Tualigi. But if Tuilagi proves his fitness he would be my first call up, irrespective of who gets injured!

Murphy: Duhan van der Merwe, Jacob Stockdale, Ronan Kelleher, Care and the entire Leinster back row.

A couple of the guys at Saracens including Billy Vunipola (above) could miss out on the squad

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