Thursday 29 April 2021 3:08 pm

Ollie Phillips: Why I think Owen Farrell could be left out of the British and Irish Lions squad

Picking a British and Irish Lions squad is a tough task even at the best of times.

You have to condense the very best from four nations into one 36-man party, taking into account not just rugby ability and form but also which players can fuse quickly and who will be good for morale on tour.

Throw in the pandemic, and the fact that those involved in the Premiership final will have to join the Lions squad later, and it becomes even more of a headache for Warren Gatland.

Read more: Premiership rugby clubs issue warning to British and Irish Lions chiefs over scheduling after reaching player release agreement

Gatland, who is due to name his selection on Thursday 6 May, is set for his third tour as head coach – but this time there is a difference.

Whereas in 2013 and 2017 he was also part of the Wales set-up, now he is not. That means he will lose a little insider knowledge not only of the Welsh players but also the English, Scottish and Irish that he would have come up against at the Six Nations.

Gatland’s assistants, meanwhile, are very much Plan B after Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Steve Borthwick all declared themselves unavailable for different reasons.

Gregor Townsend will be in charge of the Lions’ attack and the brand of quick, creative rugby that he favours as Scotland head coach will surely have a bearing on selection.

England typically provide a big contingent but that won’t be the case this time. While Gatland and Townsend will naturally favour players they know from Wales and Scotland, Ireland also outperformed England at the Six Nations.

Gatland is not shy to make a big call and that’s what makes the Lions squad announcement so intriguing. This is how I think it will play out.

Front Row

Wyn Jones, Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler are all good props, and I suspect Mako Vunipola will be included even if he doesn’t really deserve to be.

The big question is around which hookers to take. Compared to the second and back rows, where Gatland has so many options, hooker is definitely the Lions’ weakest position.

I think Luke Cowan-Dickie will go on tour but Jamie George won’t. Ken Owens may well get the nod to start as Gatland knows him.

Second Row

Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, James Ryan will all go. With Joe Launchbury injured, I wonder whether Courtney Lawes might get in – if fit enough himself. Like Itoje, he can cover lock and blindside flanker, is mobile and useful at the line out.

Back Row

Tadhg Beirne can play second row or blindside, so he will go, as will Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson and Tom Curry, who will probably battle it out at openside. Taulupe Faletau is the obvious choice for No8.

With so many options, however, we could see some surprise selections here. I’d love to see Sam Simmonds picked – and I’m sure Gatland wouldn’t mind sticking two fingers up to Eddie Jones, who hasn’t fancied Simmonds for his England team.

CJ Stander may have retired from Ireland duty but I think could well go. He’s a leader and would no doubt relish the chance to represent the Lions in his native South Africa.

Ben Earl could also be in with a shout. With two games at altitude, Townsend will want to move the Springboks around as much as possible and exhaust them. That means playing at pace, and Earl can do that as well as challenging at the breakdown.

Ben Earl could be a surprise inclusion in the Lions squad as his qualities suit the style favoured by attack coach Gregor Townsend
Ben Earl could be a surprise inclusion in the Lions squad as his qualities suit the style favoured by attack coach Gregor Townsend (Getty Images)

Half-Backs

I believe Ally Price will start at scrum-half but I would really like to see Danny Care go too. Care has been in exceptional form for Harlequins and, for me, deserves to get the nod over Ben Youngs.

At fly-half, I think Gatland leans towards Dan Biggar but Townsend would prefer Finn Russell – and I think we could see an all-Scottish half-back combination for the Lions.

It would be a big call, but I think there is an outside chance that Owen Farrell is left out of the squad altogether. It’s probably a shootout between him and Johnny Sexton for the other fly-half spot. Farrell hasn’t played much this year, and when he has he hasn’t been very good. 

Gatland likes a bolter and if he is feeling especially bold he could even go for Marcus Smith, who has been electric for Quins and would also be two fingers to Eddie Jones.

Centres

Robbie Henshaw will probably start, and Ireland team-mate Garry Ringrose will be in the squad too. Jonathan Davies is another cert and, with George North out, I can see Townsend making a case for Cameron Redpath.

If overlooked at fly-half, Farrell could still make the squad as someone who can play inside centre.

The other interesting call surrounds Manu Tuilagi. Injuries mean he hasn’t played but if he is a game-changer and, provided he is going to be in good enough shape, has to be in the touring party.  

Back Three

Anthony Watson and Louis Rees-Zammit look like starting on the wings, with Stuart Hogg at full-back. Liam Williams and Hugo Keenan are other options at No15.

I think Duhan van der Merwe will go, while Jack Nowell’s form, versatility and Lions experience has put him in the conversation.

Captain 

Alun Wyn Jones will surely captain the Lions. Hogg could also do the job.

Although he has been touted for the role and is a brilliant player, I’m not sure Itoje’s personality is that well suited to leading a Lions tour. 

Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development & behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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