Warren Gatland will take up to 36 players on the British and Irish Lions tour to take on the world champion Springboks, with the head coach set to make a sizeable cut to his squad size because of the reduced schedule.
Gatland is ramping up preparations for the South Africa tour – which also includes a warm-up match in Edinburgh against Japan on the eve of the departure – with five tour matches set to precede a three-Test series against the reigning Rugby World Cup winners.
The eight-match tour is two games shorter than the 2017 programme, which Gatland named an initial 41-man squad for, with the mid-week games either side of the first Test scrapped due to player welfare concerns. Gatland believes that reduction will allow him to take a slimmed-down squad to South Africa in order to keep his squad involved and focussed, with reinforcements significantly closer than when touring New Zealand or Australia.
“We’re probably looking at 35 or 36 players,” he said. “Maybe a 20-15 split (forwards to backs) or a 20-16 split. In doing that, we’ll probably name a standby squad.
“Because we don’t have a game before the first Test, which has been a real pressure in the past because you’re trying to protect your Lions matchday 23, that makes it a heck of a lot easier in terms of preparation for the first Test week.
“You pick a squad of 35 or 36, three players in certain positions, but they can engage fully up until the end of the tour. If you’re not in the 23, you’re only a performance or an injury away from getting selected or being in the squad.”
Gatland also gave the impression that he is pencilling in what could be an England-dominated squad, with Eddie Jones’s side having the chance to back up their Rugby World Cup final appearance last year with a potential Six Nations title, depending on how ‘Super Saturday’ plays out this weekend. With another Six Nations championship to assess before naming his squad, Gatland is keeping a close eye on a number of England players for places for “potentially a third to half the squad”.
Taking that into account, how could Gatland’s squad shape up next summer?
With fewer than eight months left for players to impress, the time for any tour ‘bolters’ to stake their claim is running out, but a few new names have already started to emerge to stake a claim for a ticket on the plane.
Props: Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge (both England), Rhys Carre (Wales), Kyle Sincker (England), Tadgh Furlong, Andrew Porter (both Ireland).
Hookers: Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie (both England), Ken Owens (Wales).
Locks: Maro Itoje (England), James Ryan (Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Jonny Gray (Scotland), Courtney Lawes (England).
Back row: Tom Curry (England), Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric (both Wales), Jack Willis (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England).
Scrum halves: Gareth Davies, Rhys Webb (both Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland).
Fly halves: Owen Farrell, George Ford (both England), Finn Russell (Scotland)
Centres: Henry Slade , Manu Tuilagi* (both England), Garry Ringrose (both Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales).
Back three: Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell (all England), Josh Adams, Liam Williams (both Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland).
*With Tuilagi currently injured and not expected to be fit again until April, Bundee Aki (Ireland) is on stand-by to step into the squad if needed.
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