LIONS TEAM VERDICT: Warren Gatland Built A Worthy XV On Meritocracy, Not Hierarchy

CHRIS FOY’S LION VERDICT: Warren Gatland has once again shown himself brave and brave… the omissions of Faletau and Murray prove that this is a squad built on meritocracy, not a rigid hierarchy

  • Warren Gatland’s latest Lions squad features a series of bold choices
  • The Lions will face South Africa in the first test in Cape Town on Saturday
  • Big names, such as Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray, have been left out
  • The omissions are a shock, but the selected players have earned their places

Warren Gatland has proven in the past that he is a daring, courageous selector, and he has shown that same quality again with the composition of this team to beat South Africa.

It’s certainly not a boring, predictable Lions side, far from it. While there will be an understandable focus on Captain Alun Wyn Jones’ remarkable return from his dislocated shoulder, there are several shocking inclusions and omissions.

Gatland and his aides have apparently had the courage to rely on form over reputation in many cases.

Taulupe Faletau has been left out of the British and Irish Lions squad for the first Test

Due to his stature alone, Taulupe Faletau was a shoo-in to start at number 8, but he is nowhere to be seen on race day 23.

Jack Conan will gather at the base of the scrum and the Irishman’s selection is fully justified, based on his exploits on this Covid-stalked crusade. But the omission of Faletau is not something the coaches will have done lightly. He is a lion of the highest pedigree.

Others in that category also missed the cut, most notably Jamie George and Mako Vunipola, who were both mainstays of the 2017 testing team.

George led the Lions here, but now he won’t even appear on the bench against the Springboks. But again, who can dispute the logic?

Mako Vunipola is another surprising omission, who has previously been a mainstay in the team

Mako Vunipola is another surprising omission, who has previously been a mainstay in the team

Luke Cowan-Dickie was a primeval force of nature in last weekend’s win over the Stormers. He earned the right to be catapulted into the XV. His charge was beautifully timed.

Conor Murray is one of the replacements, further proof that Gatland’s Lions regime is meritocratic.

The Irish scrum half was named stand-in tour captain in part because he was seen as a man very likely to start at the start of the Test. But Ali Price has played better, so the Scot won the vote.

Quite right too. If Murray had been named at number 9, that would have created the feeling of a rigid hierarchy. Instead, the players know that they are all being considered and judged fairly.

Luke Cowan-Dickie is proof that Warren Gatland has chosen form over status in his team

Luke Cowan-Dickie is proof that Warren Gatland has chosen form over status in his team

Owen Farrell will sit on the bench next to Murray and he is another leading figure many thought would be picked to start as a birthright. But no, he had to earn it and he couldn’t.

Dan Biggar was the standout number 10, so he rightly wears that shirt. And Robbie Henshaw is a bona fide inside-center, while Farrell wasn’t the right person there, in the absence of his friend and England side-kick, George Ford.

None of Gatland and Co’s individual phone calls compare to the decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll eight years ago for the series decider in Australia, but overall this lineup contains more unexpected elements.

The inclusion of Duhan van der Merwe as a great runner out wide comes at the expense of Josh Adams, who has scored eight tour attempts and has been praised by his head coach. And Liam Williams was passed fit, but lost to fullback Stuart Hogg – another surprise.

Up front it was long believed that management leaned towards the balance of a lineout jumper at blindside flanker and Courtney Lawes fits that bill.

Conor Murray starts on the bench

Ali Price also starts against South Africa

Ali Price’s inclusion for stand-in captain Conor Murray is another bold selection choice

His ball-carrying class saw him beat Tadhg Beirne for the number 6 shirt and few can quibble over that decision.

Tom Curry has earned the start at openside, as Hamish Watson’s final audition was not entirely convincing.

All in all, this is a team designed to be daring. The Lions should try to get ahead and protect their lead as Murray and Farrell are the kind of half-backs who can be brought in to finish a game rather than chase it.

Gatland delivered the shocks, now his players must deliver the awe.