London - Months of speculation will come to an end on
Wednesday when coach Warren Gatland names his squad for the British and Irish
Lions tour of his native New Zealand.
Gatland was in charge when the Lions enjoyed a series win in
Australia during their last tour four years ago.
But the 53-year-old, again on secondment from his job as
Wales coach, knows as well as anyone that internationals against world
champions New Zealand are a completely different order of business.
Gatland was a schoolboy rugby fan when the Lions enjoyed
their only series win over the All Blacks in 1971.
Even then, one of the best teams in rugby union history,
featuring such all-time greats as JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Mike Gibson,
Barry John and Gareth Edwards, and guided by outstanding coach Carwyn James,
were pushed hard in a 2-1 win with one draw in a four-Test campaign.
This year the Lions, whose tour manager John Spencer, the
former England international, was a member of the 1971 squad, will have three
Tests in which to triumph over New Zealand.
There is uncertainty over the identity of the Lions captain
with Gatland reported by British media to be in favour of Sam Warburton.
If chosen, the back-row forward - who stood down from the
Wales captaincy for this year's Six Nations - would become just the second man
after England great Martin Johnson in 1997 and 2001 to captain the Lions on two
Warburton, however, is currently out with a knee injury and
is expected to be sidelined for five weeks meaning he would be only be fit a
few days before the squad departs on May 29.
There has been intense debate in Wales over whether
Warburton or Justin Tipuric is the better openside flank.
Former England and Lions flyhalf Stuart Barnes, now a
columnist for British national daily The Times, said Warburton was "a fine
player" and a "good man" but should not even be in the combined
side's Test team in New Zealand, let alone be captain, arguing his injury for
the series decider in Australia helped pave the way for the tourists' 2-1
triumph in 2013.
"He will defend until the last man drops in New
Zealand. But more will be needed against the best team in the world. And Warburton
doesn't possess that extra ingredient," said Barnes.
Alun Wyn Jones, the current Wales captain who deputised as
Lions skipper in Australia, is also out of action at the moment.
And with hooker a fiercely contested position, there is no
guarantee that either Dylan Hartley, the captain of Six Nations back-to-back
champions England, or Ireland skipper Rory Best will be selected by Gatland.
Meanwhile the traditional difficulty that faces all Lions
coaches of putting together a winning side featuring the best players from
England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, is made harder for Gatland by rugby
union's congested schedule.
The squad will only assemble as a whole on May 28, the day
after the English Premiership and Celtic League club finals. They fly to New
Zealand a day later with their tour opener on June 3.
If, as seems likely, Saracens and Wasps make the Premiership
final and Ireland's Leinster and Munster do likewise in the Celtic League, up
to 18 potential Lions could be involved in two bruising encounters.
Australia great David Campese used to love accusing England
of playing "boring" rugby, a taunt he deployed ahead of the
Wallabies' 1991 World Cup final win over the Red Rose side at Twickenham.
But England coach Eddie Jones, himself an Australian, has
repeatedly insisted the way to beat New Zealand is not by emulating their
expansive style but by playing a different game that makes the All Blacks
The manner in which Ireland, coached by a New Zealander in
Joe Schmidt, denied the All Blacks possession and repeatedly forced turnovers
in ending their 18-match winning streak with a 40-29 success in Chicago in
November could serve as a template for the Lions.
Ireland, though, only had to triumph in one Test. The Lions
will likely need to win at least two. If they do, sporting immortality awaits.