Warren Gatland reveals how brutal 2009 Boks series shaped his Lions selection

When Warren Gatland set about the task of building a squad to topple rugby’s world champions he kept one image in mind.

It was of the June evening in 2009 when no fewer than FIVE Lions needed hospital treatment after South Africa won arguably the most brutal Test match of the professional era.

Ronan O’Gara bled into his left eye, Gethin Jenkins nursed a broken cheekbone, Adam Jones a dislocated shoulder which would not go back into its socket.

The Battle of Pretoria would also claim Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts, who suffered tour-ending head and wrist injuries, whilst Luke Fitzgerald had his eyes gouged.

Twelve years on and Gatland knew that for the British and Irish Lions to avenge that series defeat, he must construct a squad around granite-tough physicality.

“It’s about being physical and winning that physical battle,” the New Zealander said unashamedly after majoring on muscle and raw power in his 37-man selection.

“We want to play some really good rugby but at times we’re going to have to roll our sleeves up, get in the trenches and back each other up, because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be brutal at times.”

You could see his thinking in his choice of captain – 6’6, 19 stone Welsh warrior Alun Wyn Jones.

In his midfield, too, where hard-running trio Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Chris Harris got the nod over more dainty options.

Injury doubts were left out in favour of fit and fiery alternatives, even if that meant doing without the eye-catching potential of Manu Tuilagi, Jack Nowell and Johnny Sexton.

“If we were going to Australia or New Zealand the make-up of the squad and certain players may look a little bit different,” Gatland admitted.

“We know we’re going to have to go toe to toe with South Africa and we feel like we have picked players who, if we are in that situation, can do that sort of job for us.

“But we also have to be mindful that we want to go out and play some good rugby and put them under pressure.”

To that end Gatland believes Exeter No.8 Sam Simmonds can be a trump card, despite being ignored by England for the past three years.

He spoke of the need for forwards who "don't just put the ball under their arm and run hard and straight" because South Africa "love" that sort of thing.

“It's not about just matching them physically," he added. "You need players with footwork and pace to bring variation to your attacking options. Simmonds has that.”

Time will tell whether the Lions have learned the lessons of 2009 when they did not come up against the Springbok front-liners until the Test series and were ambushed by the massive uplift in physicality.

This time forewarned is forearmed, or so Gatland hopes. Either way, it won’t be for the fainthearted.

Lions 2021 squad

Forwards: Alun Wyn Jones (capt, Wal), Tadhg Beirne (Ire), Jack Conan (Ire), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Eng), Tom Curry (Eng), Zander Fagerson (Sco), Taulupe Faletau (Wal), Tadhg Furlong (Ire), Jamie George (Eng), Iain Henderson (Ire), Jonny Hill (Eng), Maro Itoje (Eng), Wyn Jones (Wal), Courtney Lawes (Eng), Ken Owens (Wal), Andrew Porter (Ire), Sam Simmonds (Eng), Rory Sutherland (Sco), Justin Tipuric (Wal), Mako Vunipola (Eng), Hamish Watson (Sco).

Backs: Josh Adams (Wal), Bundee Aki (Ire), Dan Biggar (Wal), Elliot Daly (Eng), Gareth Davies (Wal), Owen Farrell (Eng), Chris Harris (Sco), Robbie Henshaw (Ire), Stuart Hogg (Sco), Conor Murray (Ire), Ali Price (Sco), Lewis Rees-Zammit (Wal), Finn Russell (Sco), Duhan van der Merwe (Sco), Anthony Watson (Eng), Liam Williams (Wal).

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