The stars could be aligning for Danny Care to become a Lion at the tail end of his career. He should be picked to tour South Africa now Ben Youngs has ruled himself out.
First, it is only right to salute Youngs for putting his family first, just as he did in 2017. Of course, the England scrum-half would wish to have the honour of joining the rest of Britain and Ireland’s finest in South Africa, but with another child on the way he decided that some things are more important.
When news broke on MailOnline that Youngs had decided to make himself unavailable — after being informed by letter that he was in contention — it prompted feverish debate about the Lions coaches’ scrum-half selection conundrum.
The withdrawal of Ben Youngs from Lions selection has opened the door for Danny Care
Youngs spoke to MailOnline about the decision to put family ahead of rugby this summer
It was also the most notable development on a weekend of final auditions before the 36-man squad is announced on Thursday.
Care deserves to be chosen as someone in prime form, which cannot be said about all the men who will make the cut — with several set to be included on reputation.
The 34-year-old has played 84 Tests so he is no untried ‘bolter’. He has vast experience and won’t be fazed in such exalted company.
The fact that he has long been out of favour with England coach Eddie Jones shouldn’t put Gatland off and he may relish the chance to prove that Care can still thrive at international level. He has been superb for Quins and one notable aspect of his performances has been enhanced game-management allied to a shrewd kicking game.
Care is offering control as well as attacking tempo.
Care has demonstrated his quality at Harlequins – but he is currently out of favour with England
Conor Murray is the standout No 9 as Gareth Davies and Care could contest a spot on the plane
Finn Russell would be an exciting pick ahead of Johnny Sexton – but may be deemed too risky
Conor Murray is destined to wear the Lions’ No 9 shirt against South Africa in the Test series. There are likely to be two other scrum-halves among the 36 and Scotland’s Ali Price was erratic during the Six Nations, so Care could compete with Gareth Davies to understudy Murray.
MY LIONS SQUAD
Back three: J Adams (Wal), S Hogg (Sco), J Nowell (Eng), L Rees-Zammit (Wal), A Watson (England), L Williams (Wal).
Centres: J Davies (Wal), O Farrell (Eng), R Henshaw (Ire), G Ringrose (Ire), M Tuilagi (Eng).
Half-backs: D Biggar (Wal), D Care (Eng), G Davies (Wal), C Murray (Ire), F Russell (Sco).
Props: T Furlong (Ire), W Jones (Wales), J Marler (Eng), A Porter (Ire), K Sinckler (Eng), R Sutherland (Sco).
Hookers: L Cowan-Dickie (Eng), J George (Eng), K Owens (Wal).
Locks: J Gray (Sco), I Henderson (Ire), M Itoje (Eng), AW Jones (Wal, Captain).
Back row: T Beirne (Ire), T Curry (Eng), T Faletau (Wal), S Simmonds (Eng), J Tipuric (Wal), S Underhill (Eng), H Watson (Sco).
This column is about a wish-list, not trying to predict what Gatland and Co will actually do.
So let Finn Russell take a playmaker place ahead of Johnny Sexton, as the Irish icon is struggling to stay fit these days and would be mercilessly targeted by South African provincial sides ahead of the Test series.
Russell could offer a different dimension to Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell, but the coaches may well consider him too great a risk.
The expected confirmation of Alun Wyn Jones as tour captain makes sense. The imperious Welshman remains capable of dictating terms on the grandest occasions.
Maro Itoje is the only viable alternative but England took lineout calling duties off him during the Six Nations to help him focus on dominating as a player and that is what he should do for the Lions.
George North’s cruel injury setback could have a profound impact on Gatland’s backs selection as he has lost a figure capable of operating out wide or in midfield. His absence should justify the risk of including Manu Tuilagi to add gainline-busting clout, despite the fact that Sale’s England centre has been out of action since last September.
This column’s preferred squad includes Joe Marler, even though he is highly unlikely to be picked after opting out of England’s campaign in the Six Nations and apparently failing to impress Gatland during the last Lions tour.
Alun Wyn Jones should be trusted ahead of Maro Itoje as captain on the tour of South Africa
George North’s cruel injury blow should mean centre Manu Tuilagi gets the chance to shine
Sam Simmonds is a vital cog in the Exeter Chiefs team and would excel against the Springboks
And Exeter No 8 Sam Simmonds really should make the cut as a freakish, turbo-charged talent who could run amok on the dry surfaces in South Africa.
Bath’s lack of ‘red-zone’ composure lets them down
No wonder Bath were so despondent after failing to overcome opponents who appeared to be there for the taking. They didn’t score a point for the last 52 minutes of their Challenge Cup semi-final against Montpellier on Saturday night. So much pressure was squandered.
Bath lost 19-10 to Montpellier and missed the chance of a first European final for seven years
Stuart Hooper’s side spent 29 per cent of the game in Montpellier’s 22 but could not make it count. What they needed was more ‘red zone’ composure, creativity and precision and they will soon have just the man to provide it. Danny Cipriani will be wielding the conductor’s baton next season and if Bath can put him within range of the opposition line, he will win them those big games.
Freddie Steward. Leicester’s rookie full back is having a breakthrough season and looks the real deal. He was imperious in the air and threatened as a runner in the Tigers’ win over Ulster.
Spectators were not allowed inside Stade Marcel-Deflandre yesterday but La Rochelle fans created a carnival outside, greeting their team with flairs, flags, drums and chants. Glorious.
It could have been scripted that an all-French Champions Cup semi-final would turn into an arm-wrestle and that Antoine Dupont’s brilliance would help Toulouse beat Bordeaux.
Antoine Dupont turned on the style again as Toulouse beat Bordeaux in the Champions Cup
Anglo-Saxon referees should try to speak at least a little French. Wayne Barnes communicated well with Toulouse and Bordeaux but Matthew Carley lectured La Rochelle in English.
It is 24 years since French clubs won both European titles in the same season. That is on the cards, but Leicester can stop Montpellier’s recent revival leading to Challenge Cup success.
Floodlight failure saga wouldn’t happen to the men
Floodlight failure curtailed the women’s Test between France and England in Lille on Friday night in what was an embarrassing episode for the host nation. These are Europe’s two fully professional sides but their efforts were undermined by an amateur logistical problem.
England narrowly led France 17-15 in Lille before floodlight failure put paid to the contest
‘I’ve never experienced anything like that,’ said England captain Sarah Hunter. ‘Maybe at training with your club but never in an international game.’ It wouldn’t happen to the men, so it shouldn’t happen to the women. Fixtures must only be allocated to venues capable of handling the occasion.
The last word
Rugby’s soul is being sold at an alarming rate. As CVC amass stakes in leagues, unions and tournaments in this part of the world, Southern Hemisphere officials are also turning to private equity firms to avert financial collapse.
New Zealand’s provincial unions voted unanimously last week in favour of a deal with the California-based Silver Lake group, backed by massive pension funds. While the Kiwi players’ union have yet to provide the sign-off needed, that is surely a matter of time.
Australia’s leading administrators have met their trans-Tasman counterparts to discuss the implications of such a deal, before selling off some of their commercial operations in order to stay afloat.
Rugby Australia chief Hamish McLennan are turning to private equity to avert financial ruin
Hamish McLennan, chairman of Rugby Australia, said: ‘I lament the fact that we’ve got to do it, but I don’t fear it.’
The game’s authorities have been backed into a corner as the pandemic has exacerbated financial turmoil, but they must realise the motivation for these investors is vast profit.
This is not about enriching rugby, it is about enriching shareholders. Don’t be surprised if it all ends in tears.