Alun Wyn Jones has been confirmed as the 2021 British & Irish Lions captain for this summer’s tour of South Africa, as head coach Warren Gatland revealed his squad.
The Welsh forward led his country to Six Nations victory in the spring, falling agonisingly short of the Grand Slam in Paris on the final day of the championship, and the 35-year-old was the standout candidate to lead Gatland’s squad into battle against the world champions this summer.
Jones, who is the game’s most capped player with 157 test appearances, including 148 for Wales, is preparing for his fourth tour with the Lions after playing key roles in 2009, 2013 and 2017, having featured in each of the last nine Lions test matches.
Gatland’s squad has been stretched to 37 players from its originally intended figure of 36, with the Kiwi admitting it had been a more difficult selection process to nail down than in 2013 and 2017.
“It was stressful,” Gatland said. “In all my time in coaching this was the hardest, most challenging squad that I have ever bene involved in to pick because it is trying to get a balance and understanding what that is.
“We have seen so many different squad by people and at the end of the day selection is just a matter of opinion and we have got to try and do the best job we can as coaches to put the right squad together that we think can go down there and win a series.
“It hasn’t been an easy decision. We had a meeting yesterday, it was about four hours and we looked at all our options and we added an extra name. The squad was initially going to be 36 but we have gone to 37 just to try and cover all our bases.
“It was really, really tough and I just need to assure people no decision was taken lightly. It was really thoroughly discussed a lot of the positions and the options trying to get that balance right… some really tough calls.”
2021 British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa
Forwards (21): Rory Sutherland, Wyn Jones, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ken Owens, Zander Fagerson, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, Jonny Hill, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Taulupe Faletau, Sam Simmonds, Jack Conan.
Backs (16): Conor Murray, Gareth Davies, Ali Price, Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar, Finn Russell, Chris Harris, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly, Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Stuart Hogg.
Breaking down the Lions squad selection
This was a Lions squad announcement which threw up plenty of surprises from those suggested by former players and the media.
There is no room for 2017 Player of the Series Jonathan Davies nor Welsh stalwart Josh Navidi, while England have more players selected than any of the other three nations which form the Lions despite their fifth-place finish in the Six Nations.
Kyle Sinckler, Jonny May, Henry Slade, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola, Joe Marler, Manu Tuilagi and annointed bolter Danny Care all missing out, so too, Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton, Keith Earls and Garry Ringrose, as well as Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Jonny Gray.
But in all, there is equal representation across the four unions, with Gatland selecting; 11 England, 10 Wales, 8 Ireland, 8 Scotland.
The biggest areas for debate surround the centres and the second row, as picked by Gatland and his coaching staff of Gregor Townsend (attack), Steve Tandy (defence), Robin McBryde (forwards) and Neil Jenkins (kicking).
With no Davies, Slade or Ringrose selected, Ireland and Connacht centre Bundee Aki will become a first-time tourist at the age of 31.
On-form Leinster centre Robbie Henshaw appears to be a nailed-on starter and was listed among Jeremy Guscott’s ten ‘must-take’ players in his column from last Sunday’s TRP.
Named in the Six Nations team of the tournament, Henshaw could be partnered by Aki, Gloucester and Scotland ace Chris Harris or England’s Elliot Daly.
As for the locks, Exeter Chiefs tackle machine Jonny Gray is not included despite profiling as one of Europe’s most dominant tacklers.
Missing the Six Nations through injury has cost the Scotland star dear as Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje and Tadhg Beirne are all selected as players who are capable of shifting to the blindside flanker to add an additional lineout threat.
Gray’s Exeter teammate Jonny Hill is also included after making his England debut last October in the Six Nations finale in Rome.
Skipper Alun Wyn Jones figures to be involved in the first Test in Johannesburg on July 24.
Revealed as tour captain prior to the full squad being read out by British & Irish Lions chairman Jason Leonard, Jones admitted he had missed the initial call from Gatland.
“I’m obviously very proud and privileged,” Jones said.
“To be selected in the squad is initially what you want to be hearing as a player. To have the armband as well is a privilege.
“I had a call from Gats on Sunday evening – actually a missed call.
“I thought I’d better give him a callback. We had a quick chat and I accepted obviously.
“Initially the aim is to get into the squad. I’ve just got a huge amount of pride to be able to add this to the CV.
“There is a lot of work to do when we get out there.”