A day out from the naming of Warren Gatland’s 36-man squad to tour South Africa, Neil Treacy named his British & Irish Lions squad, with not a small amount of controversy.
For the first time since 1997, the touring squad will be made up of just 36 players, as opposed to the 37-man squads for 2001, 2009 and 2013, the 44-man squad for 2005, and 41-man squad in 2017.
As this is the smallest squad in more than two decades, OTB Sports’ Neil Treacy selected his side based off of versatility, and overall form.
“You want a lot of players that can multiply into a couple of different positions,” Treacy said on Wednesday’s OTB AM.
“I wasn’t looking for characters. Up front I wanted really good scrummagers, because that is where you want to take on South Africa. You want big, powerful forwards.”
To anchor the scrum, Treacy went for two names that were in top form during the Six Nations, and a slightly surprising third man in.
“Wyn Jones and Rory Sutherland I thought are absolute bankers to make it,” Treacy said. “I was pretty torn for a while between Cian Healy and Ellis Genge.
“I just about fell on the side of Cian Healy for overall experience and his scrummaging form over the last few months. Ireland had a decent scrum in the last Six Nations, England did not.
“Whichever one of those three will be starting in a test match, I haven’t a clue.”
In a similar fashion to the loosehead props, the first two hookers were an easy choice for Treacy, with the third selection again being based potentially on patriotism.
“The first two of them were pretty easy to choose, and then I was humming and hawing on the last one,” Treacy said.
“I ultimately sided with an Irish person because I am biased. I went for Ken Owens, Jamie George and then just about sided for Ronan Kelleher over Luke Cowan-Dickie.
“I know Kelleher only started one game for Ireland in the Six Nations, but he is an explosive player, he is a power player and I think he is the type of player that you would need down in South Africa where you are going to be taking on a huge pack of forwards.”
The key factor for rounding out the Lions front row is versatility, according to Treacy.
“The first two were absolutely simple,” Treacy said. “Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler; I don’t think you’re going to see many people around the world whose squads don’t include the two of those fellas.
“It came down to Andrew Porter, Tomas Francis or Zander Fagerson, and again I went for Porter.
“With Porter, he does have the option of versatility. I know we are bringing three looseheads as well, but if push came to shove you could play Andrew Porter at loosehead at some point.”
It has been known for a while that Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones have no questions about being in the Lions squad.
“The two of them absolutely nailed on, and it looks like Alun Wyn Jones is going to be captain as well,” Treacy said.
“After that, I thought Iain Henderson was nailed on, and then it pretty much came down to James Ryan or Johnny Gray.
“I spent 15-20 minutes just staring at this last card with Jonny Gray written down alongside James Ryan and I could not split them.
Treacy admitted that, up until this time last year, Ryan would be a sure thing in the squad, but due to his injuries recently he has not been at the same standard.
“I just about sided with James Ryan, probably for the same reason as Porter and Kelleher; I have just seen more of them than I have of Johnny Gray,” Treacy said.
The first of the positions with so much depth that it will be controversial no matter who is selected, Treacy felt that the versatility of certain players will get them on the plane to South Africa.
“[Tadhg Beirne] is able to cover back row and second row, which is obviously important,” Treacy said.
“To be honest you could pick any seven of the list. This is the area that you are probably going to see a lot of controversy.
“I have with Beirne and CJ Stander as the two Irshmen, Tom Curry as the sole Englishman, Hamish Watson from Scotland and three Welshmen: Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tiperic.
“I don’t think you could argue with any one of them getting selected, the argument could come with who hasn’t been selected.”
Perhaps the easiest position of them all to fill, scrum half has no major talking points for Treacy’s Lions squad.
“Once Ben Youngs took his name out of contention, it opened up a space,” Treacy said. “There isn’t any absolute unbelievable candidate in there.
“In the end I have gone for Conor Murray, Gareth Davies and Ali Price. Tomos Williams would be the next man up for me, and Danny Care would be after that. It is not a particularly controversial position at the moment.”
| Where's Johnny? | 🧐@neil_treacy shocked the lads on #OTBAM by leaving out Ireland's star out half from his Lions squad | 🦁@GilletteUK | #MadeOfWhatMatters
Full squad ➡️ https://t.co/4us486OMkJ pic.twitter.com/DldxcqfUhi
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) May 5, 2021
It is in the Lions number 10 jersey, though, where the most controversy will come, as Treacy selected a top four with no sign on Jonathan Sexton.
“The three that I picked were Owen Farrell, George Ford and Finn Russell, and the next man up, Daniel Biggar,” Treacy said.
“After Biggar, to be honest I would probably have Marcus Smith. You would have worries about how many games in a row Johnny Sexton can play these days.
“I just don’t really have too much faith in being able to put Johnny Sexton out week after week, particularly for his own sake when you see the number of injuries he picks up.
“When you are picking the best players from across Great Britain and Ireland, there are countless options that can go in there comfortably, and you can rely on them week in and week out.
“Unfortunately, at the moment you can’t do that with Johnny Sexton.”
Treacy then came back to his senses to see out the selection of his Lions centres.
“I have picked four centres,” Treacy said. “I have gone with Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Davies and Henry Slade; Manu Tuilagi is the next man up.
“This was a reasonably easy selection to make. Robbie Henshaw has been nailed on for months now, Jonathan Davies was always going to be there.
“I just love Henry Slade. He is a brilliant kicking option as well, and if push came to shove, he would be able to do a shift at number 10 as well.”
Like the back row of the scrum, the sheer number of talented back three players that could argue their case for a Lions place was a cause of stress for Treacy.
“This was another really difficult one,” Treacy said. “The tricky thing is trying to find a combination of guys that can play both wing and fullback.
“You don’t want to be having five natural wingers and Stuart Hogg, who was going to be nailed on. I went for Hogg, three Welsh guys Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams and Josh Adams.
“Then I went for two English players, Johnny May and Anthony Watson, with Keith Earls the next man up.
“It is an area where you can see a lot of call ups in fairness.”
Neil Treacy’s full 36-man Lions squad:
Loosehead: 3 selected
Wyn Jones (Wales)
Rory Sutherland (Scotland)*
Cian Healy (Ireland)
*Sutherland is currently an injury doubt, Ellis Genge is the next cab off the rank
Hooker: 3 selected
Ken Owens (Wales)
Jamie George (England)
Ronan Kelleher (Ireland)
Next Man Up - Luke Cowan Dickie (England)
Tighthead: 3 selected
Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
Andrew Porter (Ireland)
Kyle Sinckler (England)
Next Man Up - Tomas Francis (Wales)
Second row: 4 selected
Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Maro Itoje (England)
Iain Henderson (Ireland)
James Ryan (Ireland)
Next Men Up: Jonny Gray (Scotland), Jonny Hill (England)
Backrow: 7 selected
Tadhg Beirne (Ireland)
CJ Stander (Ireland)
Tom Curry (England)
Hamish Watson (Scotland)
Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
Josh Navidi (Wales)
Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Next Man Up: Sam Underhill if you need a flanker, Sam Simmonds if you need a number 8, and Courtney Lawes if Tadhg Beirne gets injured
Scrumhalf: 3 selected
Conor Murray (Ireland)
Gareth Davies (Wales)
Ali Price (Scotland)
Next Man Up: Tomos Williams (Wales)
Outhalf: 3 selected
Owen Farrell (England)
George Ford (England)
Finn Russell (Scotland)
Next Man Up: Dan Biggar (Wales)
Centres: 4 selected
Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Garry Ringrose (Ireland)
Henry Slade (England)
Jonathan Davies (Wales)
Next Man Up: Manu Tuilagi if he can prove fitness, Chris Harris of Scotland if not
Back Three: 6 selected
Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Liam Williams (Wales)
Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales)
Josh Adams (Wales)
Jonny May (England)
Anthony Watson (England)
Next Man Up: Duhan van der Merwe, followed by Keith Earls
Total: 11 Irish, 11 Wales, 9 English and 5 Scottish players.