The Lions coach’s announcement of his 38-man party in London for the exacting tour of New Zealand will see a clutch of the Six Nations champions’ first choices overlooked in favour of their rebranded bench.
The most high-profile casualties are set to include George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and James Haskell, who will all pay the price for going missing in last month’s Grand Slam game in Dublin.
Instead the 2017 Lions, which will again by captained by Wales’ Sam Warburton, will include England replacements Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te’o, who have just one Test start between them.
The All Blacks have a chilling habit of accelerating into another gear when they deploy their bench and Gatland wants to be able to ape that ability against the world champions with the help of a trio who have carved out roles as second-half impact specialists.
Warren Gatland is set to overlook the likes of James Haskell and George Ford
Jamie George will be among those named in Gatland's squad
Saracens hooker George, 26, has made 17 appearances off the bench for England, Harlequins tight-head prop Sinckler, 24, eight and Worcester centre Te’o, 30 has made six – as well as a solitary start against Italy in this season’s Six Nations.
Te’o’s call would complete a whirlwind journey from Australian rugby league player to Lion in less than three years. It would also pit him against the team he idolised as a boy growing up in New Zealand.
Teo’s uncompromising approach epitomises what Gatland wants from his Lions on tour. He needs a unit capable of knocking the All Blacks out of their free-flowing stride.
But the Lions’ strength will need to be mental as much as physical. Gatland placed great store during the six-month selection process, which concluded yesterday, on picking players with the spine to stand up to the challenge of fronting up on away soil as the Lions will have to do on their compressed 10-game trip to the world’s premier rugby union nation.
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While beating Australia in 2013 was a commendable achievement for Gatland’s Lions, overturning these All Blacks would be something else altogether – particularly given the itinerary. A schedule which sees the Lions face three Tests, the New Zealand Maori and the five Super Rugby sides, after a ‘loosener’ against a Kiwi Barbarians side, has been branded by former Lions and All Blacks coach Graham Henry “suicidal”.
Gatland himself described the schedule as “crazy” before agreeing to take on the challenge, but it is not impossible that they could lose nine of the 10 games.
Two of the Tests are at Eden Park, where New Zealand have not lost for 23 years, while they will have to overcome the absurdities of arriving four days before the first game with no preparation straight off the back of the Premiership and Pro12 finals.
“When you tour, you need to ensure some momentum is created by results and you just wonder how they are going to go into the Test series with that itinerary. It is very demanding,” said Henry.
“They are playing New Zealand Maori, they are playing the five franchised teams – and those five have nothing to lose, no pressure on them at all, so they will fire everything at the Lions and take them on.”
Since their inception in 1888, the Lions have only won a series in New Zealand once. Back then, in 1971, selected players were placed in cotton wool immediately when their names were read out. These Lions will slog on to the bitter end of the domestic season before boarding the plane.
It is a blessing for Warburton that he is injured for the next month. At least he will be able to rest and recuperate ahead of the biggest challenge of his rugby life.