- Graham Rowntree on why he picked seven English forwards
- Lions Forwards Coach has selected squad with Wallaby opposition firmly in mind
In a British and Irish Lions squad that is 40 per cent Welsh, there is a distinctly English flavour to the front row forwards, with five of the nine selected either current or former England internationals.
England Forwards Coach Graham Rowntree, tasked with marshalling a pack which can compete with Australia in the three-Test series, has chosen hookers Dylan Hartley and Tom Youngs, tight-head props Dan Cole and Matt Stevens and loose head Mako Vunipola.
Appreciative of the fast, running game Robbie Deans’ side is expected to play on their hard pitches, Rowntree was succinct about the rationale behind his decisions.
While noting the startling progression of Youngs and Vunipola – who two years ago were yet to start a game for Leicester at hooker and playing for England Under 20 in the Junior World Championship final respectively – Rowntree repeated the word dynamic when discussing what the pair will offer.
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He said: “Mako has done exceptionally well, I remember speaking about him when we announced the squad for the QBE Internationals last autumn, telling everyone what we thought of this kid and he’s not let us down.
“He’s still got a lot of learning to do, especially at the set-piece but you can’t argue with what he brings dynamically.
“We capped Tom after nine Premiership starts and within a week he was playing against the biggest pack in the world in South Africa. It’s been an astronomic rise, he’s a good kid, very coachable. What he brings is an aggressive carrying and tackling game on the back of a good set-piece. Similar to Mako, you can’t hide from what he can do dynamically.”
Perhaps the most surprising inclusion – eliciting a gasp from those attending the announcement – was former England international Stevens, who retired from duty with the national team in August last year.
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But Rowntree said he and the Lions coaching team have been watching the 30-year-old Saracens prop – who toured with the Lions in 2005 without forcing his way into the Test team – closely and said his ability to defend against Australia’s running threats, allied to his consistent form at tight head, confirmed his seat on the plane.
“We’ve watched him all season,” said Rowntree, who has worked at the RFU since 2007. “At tight-head prop it’s difficult to get right because you need good scrummagers and Matt is settled playing there for his club.
“He’s scrummaging very well but especially with Australia in mind, we need guys who are not just scrummagers but who can also defend. Defending against the likes of Will Genia and Quade Cooper running at them with a high work rate, he ticks all of those boxes.”
Two more England forwards make the touring party, line-out technician Geoff Parling and flanker Tom Croft, a remarkable comeback story in its own right just 10 months after a near career-ending neck injury.
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Rowntree is open about the fact that players he knows and trusts were at an advantage in selection terms, given the mere seven pre-Test games they have in Hong Kong and Australia before the first Test on June 22, but says the coaching group, led by Head Coach Warren Gatland, were “pretty much unanimous”.
From the pained expression on his face when facing the question, one suspects the decision to leave England captain Chris Robshaw and flanker Tom Wood out was a bone of contention, in light of their relentless form in England’s last seven Tests.
Captain Sam Warburton, Wales colleague Justin Tipuric and Ireland’s Sean O’Brien occupy the No.7 berths and Rowntree said although difficult, he had to choose players most appropriate to meet, and beat, the Wallabies.
He added: “Very difficult on both counts, but especially Chris, who has led England well over the last 15 months. I’ve got to have a difficult conversation with him later to explain why we’ve done what we’ve done, but we’ve picked three sevens with Australia in mind, based on what we’ve seen from them in the autumn series and the threats we perceive from them.
“I’d like to think that if there was an injury, Chris and Tom would be looked at, well I know they will.”
As Rowntree has pointed out, unlike most international squad selections, picking a Lions group is not about developing for the future or imparting valuable experience, but simply and ruthlessly about winning two or more Test matches in the southern hemisphere. And for that he’s chosen the 21 forwards he thinks are best equipped for Australia’s specific challenge, even if it means following head over heart.