Jones has ‘captain’s material’ as Gatland starts whittling down Lions selection
Jones has ‘captain’s material’ as Gatland starts whittling down Lions selection

Jones has ‘captain’s material’ as Gatland starts whittling down Lions selection

WARREN GATLAND GAVE each of his Lions assistant coaches a fun challenge before their first selection meeting yesterday.

Gregor Townsend, Robin McBryde, Steve Tandy, and Neil Jenkins had to send Gatland a 36-man Lions squad to travel to South Africa this summer.

When he went through the picks, Gatland found that himself and the four other coaches had all agreed on close to 25 names – these are the certainties to tour.

But the remaining 10 or so spots in each squad varied, underlining how even coaches operating at the top end of the game can have rather different opinions. The Lions coaches ended up with 57 players on their overall list, some of whom are not current international players.

Gatland will name his final squad of around 36 players on 6 May, so we don’t have too long to wait before finding out who the Lions boss settles on. The fact Leinster play in the Champions Cup semi-finals the weekend before – the other teams left in the competition are French – means their players will have one final big audition before naming day.

We’ll also learn who the 2021 Lions captain is on 6 May, with 35-year-old Alun Wyn Jones the current favourite after leading Wales to Six Nations success.

“He is probably one of the guys that we would be looking at it in terms of captain’s material,” said Gatland. “I think it does help coming from a team that has done reasonably well in the Six Nations, it does help.

“Whoever is captain, you need to make sure you have that conversation with them to say, ‘You might be captain on tour but there is no guarantee that you are going to play in the Test matches.’

“There’s no doubt that he would be one of the guys that we would be potentially looking at.”

Gatland will name his squad on 6 May. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Lions are planning a two-week training camp on the island of Jersey before they face Japan in a warm-up game in Edinburgh and then head to South Africa in late June.

Gatland also outlined that the Lions are planning to have their entire squad vaccinated against Covid-19 before they leave.

“We are hoping that before we go on tour there is a possibility that everyone in the touring party is vaccinated and we are working towards potentially getting that in place,” said Gatland.

“We feel that will be important. The health of the players in the squad is obviously at the forefront of our minds.”

A 36-man squad is smaller than usual – Gatland took 41 to New Zealand in 2017 – so versatility could be important in places like the back three, second row, and back row. 

Form is vital to Gatland, though he stressed that “credit from past successes” also counts when he was asked about some of England’s key men struggling for consistent performances in the Six Nations.

“It’s probably not like it was 12 months ago where some of them would have been the first names on the sheet,” said Gatland.

“Now you’re having a discussion about them and it’s a good discussion to have, in terms of knowing what they can do and what they’ve done in the past.”

The Lions head coach also highlighted the tricky ongoing discussions with the English clubs with regards to player release before the official end of the Premiership season.

The final is due to be on 26 June, the same day the Lions play Japan in Murrayfield, and while Gatland understands that players involved in the English league decider won’t be able to join the Lions early, he hopes to see players from clubs not involved in the final released early.

England’s Owen Farrell during the 2017 Lions tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As things stand, the Premiership clubs are holding out, according to Gatland, and that could count against players in close selection calls.

“It’s not just English players either, you’re talking about Welsh players and Scottish players playing there as well,” said Gatland.

“There have been agreements in the past and the Lions have always compensated clubs for the release of players, something they didn’t really have to do because the regulations allow for release on a certain date.

“What we are asking for is can they be released a little bit earlier when they’ve finished their club campaign. I’m just hoping we can get some resolution and common sense will prevail.”

Gatland also conceded that some players could opt out of touring with the Lions due to family reasons or concerns over Covid-19.

“That’s a huge possibility – it’s something we’ve already spoken about. I fully understand if players maybe don’t put their hand up to tour, so we want to sound them out before we do finally select the squad.

“The last thing I want to do is pick a squad and then have half a dozen players pull out, but I wouldn’t hold it against any player and I’d understand their personal situation of being away from home, family, and the challenges that’s going to bring.”

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