Player nationalities did not influence the selection of the to tour New Zealand this summer, says coach Warren Gatland.
Gatland, who has been Wales coach since 2007, has chosen 16 England players, 12 Welsh, 11 Irish and two from Scotland.
Wales finished fifth in the 2017 Six Nations, below champions England, with Ireland third and Scotland fourth.
“I didn’t realise the split in the numbers,” 53-year-old New Zealander Gatland said on the issue.
“We didn’t go through the numbers. We put together a group of players in each position we felt were in contention and then we went through and individually selected those players.”
England captain Dylan Hartley was not selected, despite leading England to back-to-back Six Nations titles, with Gatland preferring Ireland’s Rory Best, England’s Jamie George and Wales’ Ken Owens as his three hookers for the month-long tour which starts on 3 June and concludes with the third Test on 8 July.
England fly-half George Ford also missed out, with Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, England’s Owen Farrell and Wales’ Dan Biggar selected at number 10.
Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan, England’s Joe Launchbury and Scotland brothers Jonny and Richie Gray were other notable absentees.
“We had a long and lively debate about hookers. Dylan has done a great job for England,” Gatland said.
“If we picked him and left out Jamie George, Rory Best or Ken Owens you would be asking the same question. They were arguably form players in the Six Nations. Dylan has been unlucky.
“There has been a lot of discussion about Launchbury, Donnacha Ryan and the Gray brothers. Selection is a matter of opinion and that is what makes it interesting.”
What do the pundits think?
Former Wasps, England and Lions scrum-half Matt Dawson
“This will be the strongest Lions squad, I think, ever. However I do feel that the weighting of the players, in particular having 12 Wales players in that squad, I can look at four or five and think maybe there were other options.”
Former Ireland captain Keith Wood
“The simple truth is that [Gatland] knows a lot of those Welsh players and trusts them. There’s a few of those guys he may know better than others.”
Ex-Wales captain and three-time Lions player Martyn Williams
“If you’re purely going on what’s just happened in the Six Nations, I think quite a few of the Welsh players have maybe been picked on what they’ve done for Warren Gatland in the past and on previous Lions tours. But that is always the case if you’ve got a coach who is also a national coach.
“The fact there wasn’t a Scottish voice in that management team to back the corner of any of the Scottish players – I’m sure that led to it as well.
“If you look at the pedigree and the quality of those Welsh players I’m sure you can make a case for every one of them.
“[But] there is no doubt about it, the fact that there is such a Welsh influence within that management team has got a few of those over the line.”
Former Scotland captain Andy Nicol on programme
“There just seems an imbalance there, but this is not about nationalities. It is about Gatland selecting the squad he thinks can win a Test series in New Zealand. It’s all about the style of rugby they want to play – all about power, all about physicality. He’s picked a squad of players he knows can play that sort of game.
“We might only have two Scotland players in the squad [Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour], but we might have two in the Test team.”
Hansen ‘surprise’ at Gatland’s selection
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said: “He has got a particular style he likes, that works for him up there [in the northern hemisphere], using the big ball carriers up front and big midfielders to carry, so the selection reflects that.
“I’m a little bit surprised he hasn’t selected a couple of other people, but if he was picking the All Blacks he would pick some different people to me.
“I think this is the best British and Irish Lions team that we’ve seen come here for a long, long time. There is depth all the way through.”
‘It’s not about Sam Warburton, it’s about the team’
Gatland appointed Warburton and has now made him just the second player to skipper the Lions twice.
That comes despite the Cardiff Blues forward before this year’s Six Nations and suggestions he will face a battle for his starting place.
“One of his greatest qualities is that it is not about Sam Warburton, it is about the team,” Gatland said.
“He will be under no doubt his form has to be good enough.
“He will understand that and respect that because it is not about Sam Warburton, it is about the team and that is what I like about him as a person and an individual.”
“Ironically, I think it may be easier for Sam to captain the Lions than Wales,” Gatland added.
“He is under great scrutiny, pressure and expectation as Welsh captain. I think he will find it easier because of the quality of the squad and other leaders in the team will hopefully make his job pretty seamless and easy.”
Warren Gatland is a coach who has never been swayed by public opinion; this was the man who dropped the great Brian O’Driscoll four years ago, so making big calls like leaving out England’s all-conquering captain, picking only two Scots, or selecting as many as 12 Welshmen, would have been done with one target in mind – beating New Zealand.
While the squad is full of power and heft, the decision to pick Jonathan Joseph – who was struggling to make the party – as well as players like Elliot Daly, Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams, means there will be no shortage of pace and skill in the backline.
However, the centre pairings early on in the tour will be an indicator of how the Lions want to play the game, with an onus likely to be on physicality, while opting for Dan Biggar over George Ford or Finn Russell shows the desire for durability, consistency and temperament over raw game-breaking ability.
Full schedule – British & Irish Lions3 June – Provincial Union Team, Whangarei7 June – Blues, Auckland10 June – Crusaders, Christchurch13 June – Highlanders, Dunedin17 June – Maori All Blacks, Rotorua20 June – Chiefs, Hamilton24 June – All Blacks, Auckland27 June- Hurricanes, Wellington1 July – All Blacks, Wellington8 July – All Blacks, Auckland