While I didn’t get my predictions for the Lions squad spot on (I had fewer English centres, different Welsh ones and so on) I thought there were few real shocks.
The only surprise for me was Sinckler over the Welsh props and while not entirely a surprise I think Lawes and Kruis are lucky over Launchbury and the Gray brothers in some combination. I’m not saying they’re the wrong choices, I think there were a lot of players who you could legitimately say played well enough to deserve a chance at the tour and Gatland and Borthwick made their choices on who to include and who to leave out. Borthwick is relatively new to this job but did a good job at Sarries and has done a decent job for England. Gatland’s record over the last 28 years as a coach, and coaching both Wales and the Lions speaks for itself. So I’m not going to complain about their choices.
The London-centred media are up in arms about the exclusion of Hartley. I’m really not surprised - I didn’t pick him as you might remember - technically he’s not the best hooker in England, although he does provide a focal point and some leadership that England needed. This squad has a bunch of experienced leaders, several team captains at various levels and will not lack for leadership on the field in both the mid-week and the test squads. So George as a hooker, possibly the starter for the mid-week team or as the reserve for both sides, makes a lot of sense. He is young enough you might expect him to be able to do 20-ish minutes twice a week and if there is an injury you call in another player.
Halfpenny might seem like an odd choice - of all the Welsh inclusions he’s the one that had a bad Six Nations. I would expect Hogg to start for the test team and Payne to sit on the reserves bench, Halfpenny to start midweek. That could be reversed depending on how well they do in the training - Halfpenny for the Six Nations was still a stone-cold kicker. Better than Farrell, however much the English don’t want to hear that. While he didn’t seem to be great in some other aspects of his play, he was less than a month back from 4 months off with a big injury - at full back he is still playing himself back to full speed and confidence. Another 3 months under his belt and he should be back (and match reports from the Top 14 suggest he is now back) to his best.
On the other side of the coin… to date exactly one New Zealand side has lost except to another New Zealand side in the Super Rugby championships. The Chiefs lost to the top of the strong South African conference Stormers, in South Africa. A week later they were 24-0 down and came back to win, comfortably, against the Cheetahs, also in South Africa. There are four teams who, on Friday afternoon, have played 7 matches and have 28 points or more on the competition tree. Needless to say, 3 of them are from New Zealand - the third placed team in the NZ conference has as many points as the top placed team in any other conference!
People who make a living writing commentary on rugby in the Southern Hemisphere are seriously wondering if Beauden Barrett is better than Dan Carter. Twelve years ago, one of the sites that reviewed matches and gave players scores gave Carter 11/10 for his performance in one of the Lions matches - and while it’s a different site that is suggesting Barrett is better, they do appear to have something to back it up.
Kieran Read is back from his rehab break and while the opposition was not the strongest and he only played a half, he scored the first try for the Crusaders, made a load of tackles, ran, passed, offloaded and looked as if he’d never left.
The signs are ominous. The biggest headache for Hansen et al will be choosing the best players from the multitude who are holding their hands up, it seems as if every potential All Black is playing really well this year, better than usual, and there are a crop of bright new faces pushing for inclusion as well. Of course if you’re the All Blacks coaching staff, you’re used to these headaches.
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