Lions squad to be named within 24 hours

by AFP

Months of speculation will come to an end on Wednesday when coach Warren Gatland names his squad for the British and Irish Lions tour of his native New Zealand.

Gatland was in charge when the Lions enjoyed a series win in Australia during their last tour four years ago.

But the 53-year-old, again on secondment from his job as Wales coach, knows as well as anyone that internationals against world champions New Zealand are a completely different order of business.
Gatland was a schoolboy rugby fan when the Lions enjoyed their only series win over the All Blacks in 1971.

Even then, one of the best teams in rugby union history, featuring such all-time greats as JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Mike Gibson, Barry John and Gareth Edwards, and guided by outstanding coach Carwyn James, were pushed hard in a 2-1 win with one draw in a four-Test campaign.

This year the Lions, whose tour manager John Spencer, the former England international, was a member of the 1971 squad, will have three Tests in which to triumph over New Zealand.

Who will be captain?

There is uncertainty over the identity of the Lions captain with Gatland reported by British media to be in favour of Sam Warburton.

If chosen, the back-row forward - who stood down from the Wales captaincy for this year's Six Nations - would become just the second man after England great Martin Johnson in 1997 and 2001 to captain the Lions on two tours.

Warburton, however, is currently out with a knee injury and is expected to be sidelined for five weeks meaning he would be only be fit a few days before the squad departs on May 29.

There has been intense debate in Wales over whether Warburton or Justin Tipuric is the better openside flanker.

Former England and Lions fly-half Stuart Barnes, now a columnist for British national daily The Times, said Warburton was "a fine player" and a "good man" but should not even be in the combined side's Test team in New Zealand, let alone be captain, arguing his injury for the series decider in Australia helped pave the way for the tourists' 2-1 triumph in 2013.

"He will defend until the last man drops in New Zealand. But more will be needed against the best team in the world. And Warburton doesn’t possess that extra ingredient," said Barnes.
Alun Wyn Jones, the current Wales captain who deputised as Lions skipper in Australia, is also out of action at the moment.

And with hooker a fiercely contested position, there is no guarantee that either Dylan Hartley, the captain of Six Nations back-to-back champions England, or Ireland skipper Rory Best will be selected by Gatland.

Schedule in question.

World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry blasted the British and Irish Lions' "suicidal" New Zealand tour schedule Tuesday, saying their confidence could be shot before they even face the All Blacks.

Henry, the only man to have ever coached both the Lions and the All Blacks, said the itinerary risked preventing the Lions building momentum in the June-July tour.

The tourists are set to face all five New Zealand Super Rugby teams and the Maori All Blacks, as well as three Test matches which are mostly loaded towards the back-end of the trip.

"I just wonder if the itinerary is suicidal, that's my concern," Henry told ESPN.

He said the Lions' Test build-up would be against highly-regarded opponents playing without pressure as they seek one of international rugby's most prized scalps.

The New Zealander pointed to Wales' morale-sapping 40-7 defeat against the Waikato Chiefs during a tour last year, when they lost the Test series 3-0.

"(The Lions) are remembered by the Test match results, but sides gain confidence and momentum through the games they play leading into those Test matches," he said.

"If they don't get success in those games, confidence is not going to be high and that is going to affect the way they play in the Test matches."

Henry was in charge during the Lions tour to Australia in 2001, when they lost the Test series 2-1, and led the All Blacks to World Cup triumph on home soil in 2011.

The Lions' coach for the upcoming tour, Warren Gatland, labelled the schedule "crazy" in 2015, long before he was appointed to lead the campaign in New Zealand.

But New Zealand Rugby chief Steve Tew defended it this month, saying it was what the Lions requested.

He said the Lions had asked for a tougher itinerary than they encountered during the 2013 tour to Australia, which was also led by Gatland and resulted in a 2-1 Test series win.

"They've actually got what they wanted," Tew told reporters.

The squad will only assemble as a whole on May 28, the day after the English Premiership and Celtic League club finals. They fly to New Zealand a day later with their tour opener on June 3.


Saturday June 03

British & Irish Lions v Provincial Union XV, Whangarei

Wednesday June 07

British & Irish Lions v Blues, Auckland

Saturday June 10

British & Irish Lions v Crusaders, Christchurch

Tuesday June 13

British & Irish Lions v Highlanders, Dunedin

Saturday June 17

British & Irish Lions v Maori All Blacks, Rotorua

Tuesday, June 20

British & Irish Lions v Chiefs, Waikato

Saturday June 24, 1st Test

British & Irish Lions v All Blacks, Auckland

Tuesday June 27

British & Irish Lions v Hurricanes, Wellington

Saturday July 1, 2nd Test

British & Irish Lions v All Blacks, Wellington

Saturday July 8 3rd Test

British & Irish Lions v All Blacks, Auckland