Let’s throw our weight behind this Lions Team

LIAM BOTHAM COLUMN

We’ve been speculating about it for a while, and yesterday coach Warren Gatland finally announced his 37-man British Lions Squad for the eight-match tour to South Africa, which includes three Tests against the Springboks on July 24, July 31 and August 7.

This is my 15th column for the IRC, and regular readers will know that I’ve been quietly positive about Lions Rugby all year. We saw some terrific performances from players in the Six Nations and in our club rugby games and, having looked at the squad, I believe this is a nicely balanced group with an excellent coaching staff, one that all our supporters can throw their weight behind. Included are 11 England players, 10 Wales players, and eight each from Scotland and Ireland.

I am also very pleased that Gatland named Alun Wyn Jones as captain, and my hearty congratulations to him. Jones, 35, is the most capped Test player in the sport with 157 caps in total for Wales and the Lions. He will be travelling to South Africa for his fourth tour with the best players of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

I am also very pleased that Gatland named Alun Wyn Jones as captain, and my hearty congratulations to him. Jones, 35, is the most capped Test player in the sport with 157 caps in total for Wales and the Lions. He will be travelling to South Africa for his fourth tour with the best players of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Someone else you would have read about a few times in this column is Exeter’s Sam Simmonds, whose inclusion ahead of fellow England number eight Billy Vunipola is absolutely spot-on, in my view. I can think of no-one more deserving on merit that Simmonds. It’s puzzled me all year, why he couldn’t make Eddie Jones’ England team.

Sam Simmonds.

Sam Simmonds.

There are 15 other new inclusions, among whom are Welshmen Justin Tipuric, Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit, England’s Tom Curry and the Scot, Zander Fagerson – well-chosen again, considering the consistently top performances they’ve delivered all season.

There are a few players whose inclusions surprised me. One has to take into account, however, that there are a number of injured players, or some with niggles, that weren’t considered and that they had to be replaced with those who were deemed best suitable.

Still, I am puzzled by the selection of Elliot Daly, whose form has been well below par – he seems like somewhat of a ‘Teachers Pet’. He has been poor and I’m not sure what he brings to the squad.

Of Owen Farrell I’ve probably had enough to say, his demeanour and form has not been inspiring, and I think he was lucky to have been included. Farrell can play at flyhalf and inside centre, though. In the absence of the injured Manu Tuilagi, he and the maybe lucky to be included Bundee Aki may have been chosen to be employed as battering rams at Number 12.

Players who were on the fringe and were unlucky not to make the team through injury niggles include Johnny Sexton, Guy Ringrose, Henry Slade and Josh Navidi. Other notable omissions are England prop Kyle Sinckler and stalwart winger Johnny May.

Sam Underhill misses out on a place in the competitive back-row positions. Harlequins flyhalf Marcus Smith is another who was good enough to win his Lions Blazer, but he is a youngster who will surely get his chance in future.

Whomever your favourites or pet hates may be, now is the time to get fully behind this team. They’re a powerful bunch under top leadership and I have no doubt the reigning World Champions have something coming. They’d better be at their best when our boys hit the Rainbow Land.

We look forward to the selection of the Starting XV, these are exciting times!

***

Here are our regular brief previews of weekend games:
Premiership
Friday:
Sale vs Leicester
A great game. Sale sits third on the Premiership table, Leicester is 8th, but on a high having staged a stunning second-half fight back to beat Ulster last week, reaching the final of the Heineken Challenge Cup. Promises to be a very competitive battle up front. Sale looks the stronger team and Leicester have made some changes and may be resting some players! Sharks to win.
Saturday:
Northampton vs Gloucester
Gloucester has improved as a team, but the Saints are a formidable outfit and will be hard to beat at home. Looking forward to seeing the team news, Dan Biggar and Louis Rees-Zammit of Wales and soon to be Lions team mates facing each other will be fun. Northampton to win.
Exeter vs Worcester
Having claimed the scalp of Bristol recently, and playing a bottom-end team, Simmonds will be purring and I am sure will want a man of the match performance to celebrate his Lions call up. Exeter should be comfortable winners here.
Newcastle vs London Irish
Here we have a team playing best at home vs another who seems to play best on home turf, so perhaps Newcastle will have the edge. But they are on a long losing streak, and LI are a hardy bunch. If LI hit top form they should win but any slips will allow the committed Falcons in. Away win.
Bath vs Bristol
Bath lost to Montpellier in last week’s Challenge Cup semi-final – it’s a game that they lost, more than a game that Montpellier won, and it was disappointing, because they’ve been playing good rugby this season. Bristol will be licking wounds after losing to arch-rivals Exeter, so improved performances from both teams here are in the offing. That makes for something good to watch.
Harlequins vs Wasps
Wasps have had a strange, hit-and-miss season, Quins have been good for the most part and will be hard to peg back on home soil. Smith has been outstanding all season and could have been an outsider for the Lions and will want to prove a point. Quins to win.
Rainbow PRO-14 Cup
This is a weekend full of Pro-14 Derby’s, but it’s hard to judge what will happen as some of the teams have rested key players and I hope that they now commit to playing the best possible teams.
We start on Friday with the Italian Derby of Zebre vs Benetton. It’s a good, hard and traditional contest for Italian bragging rights and while Benetton has shown marked improvement recently, Zebre is arguably the better team and stronger at home. Zebre to win.
Munster play Ulster in the Irish Derby, and I fancy Munster to get the upperhand on home turf, following Ulster’s disappointing exit from the Challenge Cup last week.
Who will be the William Wallace of Scottish rugby on Friday? The Glasgow Warriors are at home to Edinburgh, and with the teams back to full strength this makes for an interesting encounter.
Connacht, who surprised Ulster recently, are at home on Saturday to Leinster, who failed against La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup last week but will be eager to bounce back. If both teams are at full strength, Leinster should win this.
The Scarlets take on Ospreys, who beat the weakened Cardiff outfit last week. Scarlets were outplayed by Newport last week, but again, if they play full strength teams then it should be a great game and Tipuric will be wanting to celebrate his Lions call in style.
Cardiff themselves actually performed above expectations in losing to Ospreys last week and will fancy themselves to nail the Newport Dragons who defeated the Scarlets last week. It depends on the team selection. I was looking forward to watch Jimbo play but he fell victim to the newly laid Cardiff pitch with a calf strain, one of 8 new soft tissue injuries. I hate these new 4G Pitches exactly for this reason and think we should go back to good old fashion grass. I hope Cardiff win.
Until next week!
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