Warren Gatland was expected to deliver some shocks on Thursday but the Lions head coach has delivered several of them – notably the remarkable omission of Kyle Sinckler.
England’s pre-eminent tighthead prop was universally assumed to be a certainty for the squad to tour South Africa.
He was the under-study to Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong in 2017 and that pair appeared to be head and shoulders above the other contenders in such a pivotal position, but instead, Sinckler has been left out. It is a decision which will be met by understandable disbelief at Bristol and within the England set-up.
Bristol Bears’ Kyle Sinckler was one of the shock omissions from Warren Gatland’s Lions squad
There must have been concerns among the Lions coaching staff about the 28-year-old’s scrummaging, because he is a rare talent around the field – a front-row playmaker.
The Springboks will put the tourists under huge set-piece pressure so Gatland and his assistants presumably felt that Andrew Porter of Ireland and Scotland’s Zander Fagerson would be better able to cope with the ferocious onslaught.
Nevertheless, on balance, Sinckler should be going. He is a class act.
As expected, Exeter No 8 Sam Simmonds has been included and that is a development which will be widely welcomed as just reward for his sensational feats at club level.
Gatland opted to go with Andrew Porter (left) and Zander Fagerson (right) instead of Sinckler
England may not value his turbo-charged talent, but the Lions have recognised that the Devonian can be a unique asset on hard grounds in South Africa.
His inclusion was expected to come at the expense of Billy Vunipola and so it proved, but what wasn’t expected was that the giant Saracen would also miss out to another No 8 – Jack Conan of Leinster and Ireland.
Meanwhile, Gatland and Co have demonstrated that they won’t be solely fixated on size and power, as Justin Tipuric and Hamish Watson have both been named among the back-rowers, when there was a suspicion that it would come down to an either-or choice.
There has been a brave call at half-back, with the selection of Scotland No 10 Finn Russell ahead of the veteran Irish Lion, Johnny Sexton.
Gatland made a series of notable omissions when he announced his squad on Thursday
Irish Lion Johnny Sexton (pictured) was left out with Finn Russell preferred ahead of him
The presence of Gregor Townsend in the coaching staff, as well as Steve Tandy, will have aided Russell’s cause and Lions fans who hope to see a positive approach against the Boks will relish the presence of the Racing 92 magician.
Among the backs, the search for some gainline-busting clout has led to the selection of Scotland’s South African wing Duhan van der Merwe and Ireland centre Bundee Aki – who was surely named because Manu Tuilagi was not deemed to be sufficiently ready.
However, Tuilagi will hope to finish the season strongly with Sale after a long injury absence and await the possibility of a late call-up.
The same can be said for Jonathan Davies. The fact that Gatland and his assistants overlooked the Wales centre and Lions stalwart is another huge surprise.
Chris Harris goes instead and what that suggests is that the coaches are valuing current form over too many reputation picks. That is a sensible approach. However, Elliot Daly is in on reputation despite recent struggles with England.
Wales star Jonathan Davies (right) was also surprisingly overlooked by Gatland and his team
Two England locks, Jonny Hill and Courtney Lawes, were among the more unexpected inclusions – the former as he is still establishing himself at Test level and the latter because he has been injured.
Hill has been superb lately for Exeter though and Lawes has enough credit in the bank to justify his place. His status as a renowned hit-man will have appealed to the Lions management, who will know that the Springbok forwards take some stopping as ball-carriers.
On that same basis, Sam Underhill was thought to be a prime candidate to make the cut, but he is another who has missed out due to an untimely injury absence. He and Josh Navidi of Wales will seek to stay fit as leading stand-by men.
The fact that they have to bide their time and hope for an opening is an illustration of the Lions’ astonishing back-row riches.