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Lawrence on the Lions: part 3

By Lawrence Dallagio
QBE ambassador

Looking back on last week’s announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand, by and large it is a squad that even though there was plenty of speculation, there were not too many major surprises.

Some players were unlucky to miss out but history tells you that there are around eight or nine injuries per tour, meaning some of those who missed out may be on the plane with the rest of the original squad before the tour even starts.

This is also the first tour with Head Injury Assessments, which is why the squad number might be higher. It is not like travelling to South Africa when you can fly overnight on a similar timezone - this is the other side of the world, and it takes a long time to get there and then to get over the jet-lag.

Focusing on those who missed out on the squad, the headlines have naturally been grabbed by Joe Launchbury’s omission. It is a slight surprise and he can count himself very unlucky.  The only thing he can console himself with is that he could not have done any more or played any better. He was England’s best forward in this year’s Six Nations Championship.

The coaches decided to take Iain Henderson which you could argue was controversial. Henderson played well against England in Dublin, not as well at Murrayfield when Ireland lost to Scotland. Warren Gatland’s idea that he was picking on away form was slightly conflicted in some of his selections.

Leaving out Launchbury, Dylan Hartley and Chris Robshaw - those three are unlucky. James Haskell too, with those last two away games with England and Wasps potentially counting against him.

There are probably a few Welshmen fortunate to get selected after some disappointing performances in the Six Nations as well. Wales did not win away from home apart from against Italy, but that is the way it goes.

It is just not about the individuals but also the blend of the group. Each of those players have tough domestic tours with their countries anyway, and will pick themselves up and use that disappointment to make themselves stronger.

On the opposite end of the scale, Saracens with their six players in the Lions squad were excellent against Munster.  Successful teams are often defined by a core group of players. Saracens have been on the radar for a little while now and on the up.   This was their sixth European Cup semi-final since about 2007/2008 when their journey first began, having lost three of those ties previously. They have had to go through hard times and a bit of heartache, which can be the start of the route to success for some teams.

Now they have taken those lessons on board, found a successful formula, and they look mightily impressive. Winning away from home in Europe is enormously difficult, and given Munster’s form and the circumstances of their journey to the semi-final with Anthony Foley’s passing, this was very impressive.

The score line flattered Munster in all honesty. Saracens just had the answer to their every move. Outstanding coaching helps and Saracens certainly have that, along with their backroom team, but the chemistry between the coaches and the players has defined their success so far. And the development of this group of players has accelerated in the last couple of years.

The sextet selected for the Lions are not just squad members - if they stay injury free then they will be contesting for Test places to face the All Blacks.

To have five Lions in the Saracens pack showed just how tough Munster’s task was in Dublin. The two Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and George Kruis along with Jamie George are close to world-class players if they are not at that level already.

Add in Owen Farrell and the frightening thing for the European competition is you can only see those players improving given their age.

Those younger talents combine with old heads in Brad Barritt, Richard Wigglesworth and Schalk Burger, who have played Test rugby to a high level and still have more to give, and that is the key.

It will take an impressive side to topple Saracens, who are well on the way to achieving back-to-back European titles which is a very special thing to do.

George Kruis, one of those new Lions from Saracens, deserves a bit of sympathy also after dropping the ball over the try line against Ireland. He is only just back from a long injury lay-off, so perhaps we can forgive him for forgetting the art of scoring tries!

He certainly hasn’t forgotten how to play in the second row, because in his two games back he has been outstanding and you can see why Warren Gatland was happy to welcome him back and into the Lions squad with no hesitation.

On another day those missed opportunities might have cost Saracens but not to be unkind to Munster, they were so superior.