The aftermath of B&I Lions omission
REACTION: Despite all the column inches and airtime dedicated to how Saracens might suffer when it came to the 2021 British and Irish Lions selection, the English Championship club scored a victory when they emerged with the biggest representation in Warren Gatland’s squad for South Africa.
Sixteen different clubs were recognised in the squad with Mark McCall’s Londoners emerging as the team with the biggest representation in garnering five picks to four each for last season’s double winners Exeter, repeat PRO14 champions Leinster and Scarlets.
However, their joy for Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola was tempered by sadness that the names of Sean Maitland and Billy Vunipola weren’t called out in an alphabetical order backs and then forwards announcement that ultimately left the Saracens squad silent.
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In that sad moment, though, coach McCall could see positivity as it highlighted to him how united a squad he has at his disposal. “We were in on a training day and we manufactured the day in such a way that when the announcement was made the players could be where they wanted to be,” he explained.
“A big bulk of the squad were in the team room watching it and a number of the players whose names could have been read out weren’t here and chose to listen to the news alone.
“They [the squad] were over the moon for the five who went. Every time a name was called out the room went mad but it was funny because they did it in alphabetical order and it so happened that Billy was the last on our list of people who could have gone.
“It went from jubilation to the opposite of that, to be honest, and everybody left the room quietly because they were so disappointed for Billy, which I thought was a lovely moment. Billy wasn’t in the room but it said a lot about how the group feel about him.”
Asked how Vunipola is coping with his Lions omission in the build-up to this game, McCall added: “Billy is, as you would imagine, disappointed like a lot of players around the country.
“Everybody wants to go and Billy is one of those players who was absolutely desperate to go on that tour. It is the pinnacle and he was desperate to go. He understands these are tough choices for the coach, for Warren Gatland, and selection is subjective.
“We will support him like we always do. He’s a hugely valuable member of our squad but he has had a number of setbacks, mostly injury-related rather than selection-related down the years. This has been his safe place and he has always chucked himself into the club and the friendships that he has here, and that is what he will do I’m sure.”
Switching to the Saracens contingent that will be travelling as Lions, McCall continued: “We’re thrilled for them, it’s a huge achievement for both Owen and Mako to be on their third tour and Maro, Elliot and Jamie to be in there on their second tour. It’s absolutely brilliant for those five guys and we’re disappointed for Billy and Sean who we would have loved to have gone.
“We’re pleased about that [level of representation] on a number of levels but mostly because some of our younger contingent, the guys who are home-grown and have come through our academy and are 19, 20, 21, 22 now, they can see a route to that position.
“At one point, Mako, Jamie and Maro, they were all in the academy and they came through in that way and for them to think that they can all achieve that if they can stay here and progress in the manner that those players did so, that is probably the most important part of it.”
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Meanwhile, Pat Lam revisited last week’s dramatic few days involving Kyle Sinckler, the England tighthead who shrugged off his earth-shattering exclusion by the Lions to bounce back a little more than 50 hours later with a man of the match performance for league leaders Bristol that was followed by an emotional live TV interview.
Sinckler has courted some negative headlines during his career but the determined way the front-rower used his Lions anger to fuel a captivating display for the Bears resulted in widespread admiration for him in the wake of a roller coaster ordeal that culminated in him wearing his heart on his sleeve when questioned on TV post-game.
“Once we got up there into our changing room, that is where I got told Kyle was a man of the match and would be up soon,” explained Lam about last weekend.
“Everyone just chilled out, but as soon as Kyle came in and he had the man of the match award, we all gave him a clap.
“I had a few words to each player and I said [to him], ‘Great game, well done, thanks’ and he just said ‘thanks’ as well. Nothing too much, just normal stuff I go through when talking with players and that is what I want. That is a professional effort. He did his job and that is what you want from every player regardless. Everyone has different situations that they have to deal with and it’s about fronting on the field and he did that.
“The thing I’m pleased with is the situation with Kyle is no different from all players and staff – everyone has their moment of adversity. Whether that is something on the field, something off the field, that is what you are trying to create, the support network for everybody in whatever situation it is. So the support that Kyle got was no different from some of the support that everyone has got at pretty much different stages in their time here which is pleasing. That is what I want to see.”
Lam also recounted the moment last Thursday when he learned that Sinckler hadn’t been chosen for the Lions and he went on to further savour how his player reacted in the time that followed before running out on the pitch at The Rec two days later.
“While he has shared that [emotion] publicly, we saw it in action from the moment it happened and he was awesome. It was a difficult situation because we were all together [watching the Lions announcement] and we just came out of a meeting – we all saw it and thought wow. Then we just got on with it and he got on with it and the group trained well.
“Then someone showed me the message he put out on social media. We’re thinking the guy everyone thinks will get in doesn’t get selected and the way that he conducted himself in training, the way he trained and then the message that he put out about the Lions and getting behind them was all not only words but actions and then perform the way that he did.
” He [even] came in with a smile on his face all ready to go for training and contributed to the meetings. Yeah, a great example.”