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Warren Gatland’s dream British and Irish Lions squad could face a nightmare in South Africa

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Warren Gatland has picked hobbits to be giant slayers and he has far too many Neville Nobodies in his squad of 37 for their tour of South Africa, writes Mark Keohane.

FILE – Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones. Photo: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

CAPE TOWN – Warren Gatland phoned Alun Wyn Jones to ask him to captain the British & Irish Lions in South Africa. Jones was offline, so he sent him a whatsapp asking him to give him a call.

It was all so traditional and in the now.

When Jones was confirmed as the Lions captain, via a live television broadcast, he was virtually beamed into the studio, which prompted him to joke afterwards that he thought he was on Star Trek.

Jones had been showcased to the sporting world as a hologram.

Social media erupted with memes and laughter.

It was funny, but not as funny as Gatland’s Lions squad, which many critics felt was a joke.

If the virtual Jones, the hologram, is something from the future, then Jones, the real thing, is something from a playing past that is far more glorious than the plodder who will lead the Lions into battle against the world champion Springboks.

Jones, his 159 games making him the game’s most capped international, should be on pension. His Six Nations performances are overhyped. He was picked on past glories and because of familiarity, having played a decade of Test rugby for Wales under Gatland.

The rallying cry from within the Lions rugby fraternity is that Gatland is fighting fire with fire, bringing beasts to the Republic to conquer the world champion Springboks.

But I disagree.

Gatland has picked hobbits to be giant slayers and he has far too many Neville Nobodies in his squad of 37.

The Lions are the most precious occasion in world rugby. For me, the Lions are bigger than the World Cup because they only visit this country every 12 years and they play the Springboks in the best of three Tests.

When it is over, there is no doubt as to who is the best.

We saw that in 1997 and we saw that in 2009. Both series were thrillers.

Pre professionalism, the only thing that could match the Lions in South Africa were the All Blacks in South Africa. The Lions are the only tour that exists on the modern calendar.

Appreciate the tour and bow to the occasion, but don’t put Captain Plod on a pedestal and don’t add to the delusion that this is a team of world beaters.

The Daily Mail, as just one example, picked a starting XV of players who missed selection. I liked the look of their team. It reads more potently than any XV Gatland will pick from his 37.

Gatland, to quote Sir Clive Woodward, has gone for brute force.

I reckon he should simply have gone with quality rugby players. There certainly are enough of them in England and Ireland, with only eight of the Irish national squad considered capable of the South African challenge.

Come on, a Lions squad inclusive of seven Scots and a South African-born and raised adopted Scot called Van der Merwe. The jokes keep on rolling.

The famed Lions travelling red army won’t be in the trenches to help these ‘nearly men’ in red playing jerseys grow an extra arm and leg.

The Lions are in for a whipping before the kick-off in the first Test against the Springboks. There is some class among the Lions, with England lock Maro Itoje, the only Lions player

I’d pick in a Springboks starting XV.

Itoje is arguably the best lock in the world, and what a statement it would have made to the majority of South Africans to have a black player lead the Lions in South Africa.

It would have shattered any perceptions that the Lions are pasty lads from the smaller isles of Britain.

We know they aren’t that and historically you only have to go back to 1974 to know that these lads can play and can physically front the biggest South African man mountain. But that was 1974.

In 2021, the big, heavy, grizzled Lions will be at home. England’s Billy Vunipola, all 130 kilograms, will watch the series from a pub. So too England props Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge. Ireland’s James Ryan and Scotland’s Jonny Gray are two locks younger and more destructive than Jones was in his prime. How Mr Gats?

The questions around the pedigree of the Lions don’t match the statements brimming with confidence from those up north.

The Springboks are settled but their coaching staff will also be asking a few questions, most notably of 2019 World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi, whose playing time in the next month will need to match his social calendar.

Kolisi has always risen to the challenge, but I admit to being very surprised when reading a tweet from respected rugby journalist and author Craig Ray, in which he summarised Kolisi’s views on Itoje and Jones as captain options, with the Bok captain saying both were quality players and that it was an either/or for him.

That wasn’t the surprise; this was: ‘#SiyaKolisi told me yesterday he hasn’t really been watching NH rugby, so doesn’t know who or what to expect from @lionsofficial selection,’ tweeted Ray.

I replied: “It would be nice if the @ Springboks captain was actually taking an interest in the blokes he will be playing against.”

Ray responded that perhaps it was a case of Kolisi telling him one thing but doing the other, like knowing exactly what is going on in northern hemisphere rugby. I sincerely hope so, otherwise the joke could well be on me and the Springboks at the final whistle of the third Test.