COMMENT: Itoje holds the key for the Lions

Alex Broun 21:28 19/04/2017
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Can Itoje bring his club form into the tournament?

British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland always said that some top players would miss out on the tour to New Zealand – and that was certainly the case when his 41-man squad was named Wednesday.

Before the list was announced the 53-year-old coach had stated his intention not, as England coach Eddie Jones suggested, to try and negate the All Blacks brilliance, but to match fire with fire and play rugby against them – as Ireland did so successfully in Chicago last year.

“You can’t go and shut up shop against them or try and close down a game” said Gatland, “You’ve got to try and be positive and play rugby – take risks. The best example I thought of was Ireland in Chicago. That was being brave, being bold.”

So Gatland intends to be bold, and that was certainly the case when the names were read out. There was, as expected, a host of star Englishmen missing – captain Dylan Hartley among them – but there was also a couple of absolute bolters who no one saw coming, like New Zealand-born Irish centre Jared Payne and English-born Welsh flanker Ross Moriarty.

Payne, 31, may turn out to be a master-stroke. He has the ability to play centre and fullback so can cover for the two No15s in the squad – Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg. He also knows New Zealand conditions well, playing four seasons of Super Rugby and he’s dependable under the high ball, which will be so important.

Moriarty is a major surprise especially given the backrowers he pipped for a place, with Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Jamie Heaslip among them. But the abrasive 23-year-old has been picked on merit after an impressive Six Nations campaign and consistent performances club side Gloucester. He’s big (1.88m, 106kgs) and mobile, in the Billy Vunipola mode, and will make the opposing loose forwards work hard in defence.

There was of course huge outcry with only two Scots in the entire squad, with one wit on Twitter suggesting that if Gatland were picking the UK Davis Cup squad he would leave out Andy Murray.

Lock Jonny Gray is unlucky but if truth be known, winger Tommy Seymour only got in because he is Scottish, with Simon Zebo or Tommy Bowe better options.

“Rubbish” you may cry, but that is the nature of a Lions tour. Everyone will have their own opinions, and argue them vehemently.

Gatland appears to have backed down on one call with the late inclusion of livewire England centre Jonathan Joseph. Like Hartley and lock Joe Launchbury, Joseph seemed destined to miss out, but perhaps due to media uproar when news leaked of his exclusion, Gatland found a place for him.

Most of the squad was as expected and our likely squad published in Tuesday’s Sport360 only included two players who didn’t make the cut – Garry Ringrose and Gray.

But the only question that matters is: Has Gatland selected a squad that can beat the All Blacks? On initial inspection, the answer is no. However, there is one chance.

Last year in Australia one man completely dominated the series from first kick-off to final whistle, earning England an unprecedented 3-0 series victory.

He was everywhere – every lineout, maul, ruck. His presence was inescapable. He simply overpowered the Wallabies, like man among boys.

This Lions series may come down to the same young man, extraordinary 22-year-old English lock/flanker Maro Itoje, who is the most exciting rugby player to emerge for years and youngest Lion among the tour party.

He alone will have to carry the Lions to a win in two of the tests, and one of those victories will have to be at Eden Park, a venue the All Blacks have not lost at since 1994.

The task is difficult but not impossible, although some of Gatland’s selections, especially the omission of Hartley and Launchbury, have made it harder.

Whatever Gatland does, the series will come down to a number of key contests: George vs Coles, Itoje vs Retallick, Vunipola vs Read, Murray vs Perenara, Sexton vs Barrett, and North vs Savea.

If the Lions win half those match ups then you give them half a chance. If you don’t, we all know what’s coming.

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