Players such as England captain Owen Farrell can return to “playing with some confidence” on this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour, hopes head coach Warren Gatland.
On Thursday, Gatland named a 37-man squad for the South Africa tour which featured 10 of the England players who finished fifth in the 2021 Six Nations.
Farrell’s captaincy was questioned during that tournament, but Gatland still believes in the 29-year-old.
Gatland says Farrell is “a competitor”.
Gatland told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rugby Union Weekly: “I think someone like Owen Farrell would be the first to admit it wasn’t his greatest Six Nations.
“He’s won things so he knows what it’s like to lift trophies and play in big matches.
“We can create an environment with a number of those players who potentially had what they would consider a disappointing Six Nations so hopefully they can thrive and get back playing with some confidence.”
Farrell’s inclusion left no room for 2013 and 2017 Lions team-mate Johnny Sexton but fellow Saracen Elliot Daly was named among the centres, where 2017 Lions player of the series Jonathan Davies missed out.
Daly – usually a full-back for England – was dropped for the side’s Six Nations match against France after lacklustre performances earlier in the tournament.
But Lions attack coach Gregor Townsend says he was convinced by the 2017 tourist’s form, despite the fact that he and the four other Saracens players in the squad have been competing in the Championship.
“I watched him against Doncaster and against Nottingham,” he said.
“You might say the opposition isn’t a good level but what I’m seeing from him is working really hard to get on ball and his ability to step and pass, never mind his left-foot kick and previous experience on a Lions tour. I think he has timed his run to form really well.”
Balance of physicality and flare key to selection
Balance was a word both coaches used to explain the selection.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Springboks have not played since they physically dominated England, closing down any hope of attack, to win the World Cup in November 2019.
But Gatland insists that the Lions will not solely be focusing on matching South Africa’s physicality and will instead look to entertain fans with some exciting attacking rugby too.
“We’re definitely going out with an attitude to play rugby,” the New Zealander said.
“We’re not going there to kick the leather off it. There are times we’re going to need to get in that arm wrestle but we want to be positive.
“If you need to tighten up as the game goes on, it’s a heck of a lot easier to do that, than go the other way and play territory then suddenly need to be expansive.”
Gatland’s gameplan explains the choice of rapid Exeter number eight Sam Simmonds, who earned his last England cap in 2018.
“You want some physicality and you want some players with footwork and pace,” Gatland added.
‘Bubble challenges’ factor in selection
As with so many other sporting events, the 2021 Lions tour will look very different to previous editions with the squad playing and training in a coronavirus “bubble”.
They could face up to 10 weeks under restrictions and are seeking elite sport exemption to avoid having to spend 11 nights quarantining in a hotel upon return to the United Kingdom.
The likelihood of touring without fans has had financial implications too and Gatland said the cost involved meant it was unlikely his side would increase in numbers before the tour.
The head coach explained that he had sent out 70 letters to possible players and those not picked were “on the standby list” in case of injury.
Gatland added that players’ ability to cope in the bubble environment was another factor in selection.
“There are a lot of things that went through our mind – understanding the challenges of being in the bubble and what that is going to bring,” he explained.
“It’s trying to get that balance right between having good people and players that are going to mix socially, being able to handle the challenges that a tour like South Africa is going to bring and the Covid restrictions.”
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