New Zealand

The Lions hopefuls now on the brink of missing out as Gatland cuts his squad to just 36

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With the Six Nations now over, questions over who will be in Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad on May 6 are being asked more frequently.

And the reports that Gatland is set to pick a scaled-down squad of 36 players is only complicating those questions.

Who now misses out? Which versatile players have now seen their chances improve? And what does it mean for potential bolters?

We’ve gone through the contenders to flag up what this smaller squad could mean for certain players and where Gatland could head in his decision-making.

BACK-THREE

Let’s start with the back-three.

Liam Williams seems virtually a certainty to tour, given his form and the fact that Gatland will likely use the same aerial game that he nearly defeated South Africa with in the 2019 World Cup semi-final.

Williams was a key part of that and his ability to play on the wing is only going to strengthen his cause.

Stuart Hogg is another definite, while, going on betting odds, the wing spots could be taken up by Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Anthony Watson and Jonny May.

Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe looks like Gatland’s sort of player, but the smaller squad could count against him if versatility becomes key.

On that front, Ireland’s Hugo Keenan is a credible option, capable at both wing and full-back.

Elliot Daly is a contender, given his versatility – but a poor Six Nations has put him on the back foot and he only has a handful of Championship matches with Saracens to prove his worth.

In simple terms though, the smaller squad suits him more than van der Merwe.

CENTRE

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw is a strong contender for a Test start at inside centre, but otherwise the centre position is up for grabs.

Given how he finished the Six Nations, you’d expect Gatland to keep faith in Jonathan Davies.

Looking at the betting odds, the other two likely midfield options are Garry Ringrose and Manu Tuilagi. Both undoubtedly talented on their day, but Ringrose was quiet for Ireland in the Six Nations while Tuilagi was once again injured.

Gatland might overlook Ringrose’s quiet Six Nations but, with a smaller squad, it would be a surprise if Tuilagi toured, with his lack of fitness.

Someone who hasn’t been talked about too much in terms of odds, but looks increasingly likely to go is George North, who has been a revelation in midfield – with Wayne Pivac finally getting the best out of North in the centre, something Gatland was always keen on.

His undoubted quality on the wing is an added benefit to a smaller squad. Scotland’s Chris Harris is another option after his impressive defensive displays throughout the Six Nations.

England’s Henry Slade could be a versatile option, while England skipper Owen Farrell, a certainty to tour despite the criticism he has received, could travel as part of Gatland’s midfield or as one of the three fly-half options.

FLY-HALVES

Much of what Gatland does with the fly-halves depends on how he sees Farrell.

If Farrell travels as an outside-half, then odds are Dan Biggar and Johnny Sexton are the other travelling 10s.

But if Farrell travels as part of his midfield, then there could be a spot for Scotland maverick Finn Russell.

SCRUM-HALVES

An area unlikely to be affected by the smaller squad.

Regardless of the final number, there was always going to be three scrum-halves going.

On that front, take your pick.

Conor Murray, Ben Youngs, Tomos Williams, Gareth Davies, Ali Price. It’s anyone’s guess who goes from that list.

FRONT-ROW

There’s not realistically much in the way of utility in the front-row.

The usual suspects will likely tour. The likes of Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George and Ken Owens should all tour – with a couple more places to be decided.

However one contender for the tour if Gatland wants to find some versatility could be Ireland prop Andrew Porter – who is capable of packing down on the loose-head as well as the tight-head.

However, given the brutal nature of a Lions tour, if Porter tours, it will likely be on merit as one of six props, rather than as a versatile joker in a group of five props.

SECOND-ROW

Into the second-row and there’s at least three names looking nailed on to tour at the minute.

Alun Wyn Jones, James Ryan and Maro Itoje are all looking certain to be in South Africa this summer. Itoje naturally brings some versatility to proceedings – with his ability to play in the back-row too.

Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne is fast becoming a sure thing to tour after a string of superlative performances and he too can play in the back-row.

His international team-mate Iain Henderson could be selected for his versatility, which could see him get the nod ahead of Scotland’s Jonny Gray or England’s Joe Launchbury.

Courtney Lawes is another capable of playing in the back-row if Gatland is desperate for versatility.

BACK-ROW

Perhaps the hardest part of the squad to call, with potentially only six going now.

Taulupe Faletau looks nailed on, while the other No. 8 spot looks to be between CJ Stander and Billy Vunipola.

Sam Simmonds has been mentioned in dispatches, but the smaller squad surely rules out bolters such as the Exeter man.

Stander is more versatile than Vunipola which could help his cause.

In terms of the flankers, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are all at the front of the queue.

Picking four from that five is hard enough, before you even consider the likes of Jamie Ritchie, Jack Conan or bolters like Alfie Barbeary.

Navidi’s versatility brings a balance to whatever Gatland chooses to do and so he’ll surely tour, as will Tipuric. You feel Watson has to go after his Six Nations form, but nothing is certain now.

Were the Scotland flanker to be the biggest victim of the smaller squad, that would be a bitter pill for Scottish fans to swallow.

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