Warren Gatland has dropped a bombshell by leaving the England prop Kyle Sinckler out of his British & Irish Lions squad for the “brutal” tour of South Africa. Ireland’s captain Johnny Sexton and Wales’s Jonathan Davies were also among the household names to miss out but Sinckler’s omission came as a huge shock in a squad full of surprise calls.
Notable selections include the Exeter lock Jonny Hill, the Ireland No 8 Jack Conan, and Chris Harris and Bundee Aki in the centres, but it was those who missed out on the 37-man squad who caught the eye. England have the biggest representation in the squad at 11 but including Sinckler, Gatland has overlooked a clutch of Eddie Jones’s regulars with Billy Vunipola, Jonny May, George Ford, Sam Underhill and Henry Slade all missing out along with Manu Tuilagi, who was deemed too much of a risk as he nears a return from a long injury layoff.
Tellingly, however, Gatland has put his faith in Sam Simmonds – the No 8 whom Jones has repeatedly ignored. Jones had wanted 20 of his players selected but Gatland has opted for only half that number – plus Simmonds, unpicked by England since March 2018.
Sinckler’s omission, meanwhile, is a bolt from the blue, given he made three Test appearances against New Zealand in 2017. He and Gatland have history, however, and prior to Wales’s 2019 Six Nations win over England the New Zealander described Sinckler as an “emotional time-bomb”. Sinckler proceeded to lose his cool in the match amid provocation from Gatland’s players.
Gatland admitted it was a “tough call” but suggested Andrew Porter’s versatility and the scrummaging prowess of Tadhg Furlong and Zander Fagerson ultimately counted against Sinckler. “Kyle was very unlucky,” said Gatland. “There are a couple of tighthead options and we went for Porter because of his versatility in being able to cover both sides [of the scrum]. Tough call on [Kyle], but we’ve happy with the balance we’ve got at the moment.”
On Thursday night Sinckler wrote on social media: “Honestly gutted not to be involved. Appreciate the messages of support. Not a time to feel sorry for myself and blame others. Let’s get behind the squad, wishing the boys all the best.”
In Vunipola’s case, Gatland believes his form has dropped off and while Jones has firmly stuck by the Saracens No 8, the Lions head coach has turned to Simmonds. “I didn’t see from [Vunipola] in the Six Nations the same sort of impact that he has had in the past, in terms of how important he has been for England when they have been successful – getting across the gainline, busting tackles.”
“Unfortunately that’s the reason why we haven’t picked him in that position.” Gatland has, however, picked five of the Saracens contingent whose rustiness was identified as a key reason for England’s fifth-place finish in the Six Nations. The England captain Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Elliot Daly have all been selected, with Gatland pointedly saying how he believes he can help them.
“Some of those players haven’t had what they would consider their best Six Nations,” said Gatland. “I look back on that and go ‘that doesn’t mean they have become bad players overnight’, because of what they have achieved over the last couple of years. I have got to be conscious that we can bring in some of those players and create an environment where they are going to get some of their form back or thrive and be successful.”
Simmonds, meanwhile, has been rewarded for his superb form for Exeter. He is the Premiership’s current top try-scorer and reigning European player of the year but has been unable to convince Jones he deserves international recognition. Gatland, however, evidently disagrees. “Against South Africa you’ve got to have players in your forward pack who don’t just put the ball under their arm and run hard and straight,” he added. “You need players with footwork and Simmonds has that and pace.”
With 10 players from Wales – led by the tour captain Alun Wyn Jones – and eight apiece from Scotland and Ireland, Gatland has a largely even spread across the four nations and faces an even harder task than usual in bonding his squad together, all the more so in a social distanced era with strict bubble restrictions awaiting in South Africa.
As a result he emphasised the importance of the preparation camp in Jersey before the warm-up Test against Japan in Edinburgh on 26 June, with team-bonding exercises such as fishing trips planned. “It could be up to 10 weeks away from home and in a bubble,” he said. “The rugby side takes care of itself so it’s important we get the other stuff right and think about the players’ wellbeing and mental health.”