British and Irish Lions 2017: Warren Gatland defends nationality split
Lions coach Warren Gatland says player nationalities did not influence the selection of his 41-man squad to tour New Zealand this summer.
Gatland – who has been Wales coach since 2007 – has chosen 16 England players, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and two from Scotland.
Wales finished fifth in the 2017 Six Nations, below England, Scotland and Ireland.
“I didn’t realise the split in the numbers,” Gatland said on the issue.
“We didn’t go through the numbers. We put together a group of players in each position we felt were in contention and then we went through and individually selected those players.”
England captain Dylan Hartley was not selected, despite leading England to back-to-back Six Nations titles, with Gatland preferring Ireland’s Rory Best, England’s Jamie George and Wales’ Ken Owens as his three hookers.
England fly-half George Ford also missed out with Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, England’s Owen Farrell and Wales’ Dan Biggar selected at number 10.
Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan, England’s Joe Launchbury and Scotland’s Jonny and Richie Gray were other notable absentees.
“We had a long and lively debate about hookers. Dylan has done a great job for England,” Gatland said.
“If we picked him and left out Jamie George, Rory Best or Ken Owens you would be asking the same question. They were arguably form players in the Six Nations. Dylan has been unlucky.
“There has been a lot of discussion about Launchbury, Donnacha Ryan and the Gray brothers. At the end of the day selection is a matter of opinion and that is what makes it interesting.”
‘It’s not about Sam Warburton, it’s about the team’
Gatland appointed Warburton the youngest Lions captain since 1955 in 2013 and has now made him just the second player to skipper the Lions twice.
That comes despite the Cardiff Blues forward stepping down as Wales captain before this year’s Six Nations and suggestions he will face a battle for his starting place.
“One of his greatest qualities is that it is not about Sam Warburton, it is about the team,” Gatland said.
“He will be under no doubt his form has to be good enough.
“He will understand that and respect that because it is not about Sam Warburton, it is about the team and that is what I like about him as a person and an individual.”
“Ironically, I think it may be easier for Sam to captain the Lions than Wales,” Gatland added.
“He is under great scrutiny, pressure and expectation as Welsh captain. I think he will find it easier because of the quality of the squad and other leaders in the team will hopefully make his job pretty seamless and easy.”
BBC Radio 5 live rugby reporter Chris Jones
Warren Gatland is a coach who has never been swayed by public opinion; this was the man who dropped the great Brian O’Driscoll four years ago, so making big calls like leaving out England’s all-conquering captain, picking only two Scots, or selecting as many as 12 Welshmen, would have been done with one target in mind – beating New Zealand.
While the squad is full of power and heft, the decision to pick Jonathan Joseph – who was struggling to make the party – as well as players like Elliot Daly, Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams, means there will be no shortage of pace and skill in the backline.
However, the centre pairings early on in the tour will be an indicator of how the Lions want to play the game, with an onus likely to be on physicality, while opting for Dan Biggar over George Ford or Finn Russell shows the desire for durability, consistency and temperament over raw game-breaking ability.