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‘Gatland has got selection right – as always’

Warren Gatland has named a fantastic British and Irish Lions squad for this summer’s tour of South Africa.

One thing Gatland tends to get right is his selection. It was something I saw when he was Wasps coach and I was playing there, and we have also seen it with Wales and the Lions – he knows his players.

He understands their characteristics, their strengths and weaknesses, and he picks the right players for the right jobs.

I can understand what Gatland and the selectors are thinking with all their choices. It makes sense to me. There is not any player that I think is a risk.

Exeter forward Sam Simmonds has been a surprise pick for some but it will be because Gatland wants to play a different type of eight.

Courtney Lawes has struggled with injury recently but Gatland knows what he is going to get out of him.

Lawes has great coverage in the back five of the scrum. He has got that really horrible streak about him that means no-one is going to go through him and I think Jonny Hill is like that as well.

Sam Simmonds on a graphic with a picture of a Lion
Sam Simmonds won his last England cap in 2018

‘Gatland has a definite style in mind for Springboks’

My initial impression when I heard the 37-man squad was that Gatland has got a very definite style in mind to take on South Africa.

The last match the Springboks played was when they beat England in the 2019 World Cup final and the Lions coaches can learn from that.

The squad named by Gatland is very confrontational, which I think is probably right.

The final was the biggest game South Africa had had for many years and they psyched themselves up into a frenzy that England could not match.

The creativity that England showed in the quarter- and semi-finals proved to be negated quickly by a physical and able South African team.

At the very least you have to match South Africa physically – that is the starting point. So I can understand why Gatland has chosen those 37 players, particularly in the backs.

With the tour set to be played in a coronavirus “bubbles” and uncertainty over whether any fans will be allowed, having the right type of characters in the squad is important too.

Lots of conversations will have been had with club and country coaches to see what the state of mind of players is and how they deal with the solitude of Covid.

It is also going to be important that the Lions have players who can create their own atmosphere away from the field.

They need those characters who can crank stuff up and enjoy themselves to make humorous memories as well as the rugby memories.

Matt Dawson hugs coach Ian McGeechan
Matt Dawson (right) was part of the Lions team that successfully toured South Africa in 1997

‘Sexton has not been at the races’

Gatland’s midfield selection is really interesting.

The possible centres are Bundee Aki, Chris Harris, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell.

Jonathan Davies – player of the series in 2017 – has been left out so where is that outside centre with a bit of flare and creativity?

Is it going to be Daly, who also plays at full-back? You would have thought Henry Slade had a chance, but he has also been left out.

It looks like Gatland is not really that worried about that type of gameplan and having physicality in the midfield is going to be crucial.

Aki was an interesting one for me well. He likes a big hit in big games but is that a liability? He has been sent off a couple of times.

Aki, Harris and Henshaw are relatively similar in the way that they play. You know what you are going to get out of them.

They are going to be super solid and get over the gainline. They can create opportunities for the back three and the half-backs to link up.

In a more traditional vein, you would be looking for at least one outside centre like Davies or Slade who can really play that attacking 13 role.

In a Lions squad you have got to have players who can play in different positions and that may be one of the reasons Farrell was included ahead of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton.

Sexton has not been at the races. I know him and Conor Murray played well against England in the Six Nations but physically he goes off a lot with his injuries.

He has not been as sharp as he has been in the last three or four years.

‘Selection is an emotional rollercoaster’

I have been thinking about the times I was selected for the Lions and what it was like waiting for the announcement.

The night before will have been an emotional night for players. You do not sleep particularly well. You try to distract yourself.

I remember being in the clubhouse at Northampton before the 1997 South Africa tour.

We were talking about it, trying to find reasons why we would be in or out. You are re-running different games, second guessing whether you will or will not be in.

When you are sitting there watching the TV, they read the names in alphabetical order and you know where yours should sit.

You know you are either next on the list or out of it. It is an emotional rollercoaster.

The players whose names were read out will be on top of the world. A lot will have had training after and they will have been giddy.

If the coaches have got any sense they would probably have told them not to train and take a couple of hours off because they will be away with the fairies.

Matt Dawson was speaking to BBC Sport’s Becky Grey.

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