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The unluckiest Lions players as Ireland star’s omission from first Test team described as ‘nuts’

The best tackler you’ve ever played alongside?

Back in the day, ex-Wales lock Glyn Llewellyn had no hesitation in responding: “Allan Bateman.”

Then there’s Will Greenwood on the same man.

“I learned as much from Allan in four or five weeks than I had from any coach in the past eight years,” he said a number of seasons after working alongside the Maesteg maestro on the Lions tour of 1997.

“He was a tremendous footballer, a guy whose nickname in Australian rugby league was ‘The Clamp’ because of his tackling. That showed how tough he was.”

Yet Bateman barely featured in the Tests on that first Lions adventure of the professional era. He was up against Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott for a place in midfield, and in some eyes was still the most complete midfield performer of the three with his ability to pick wonderful angles in attack allied to a willingness to cut down anything in defence.

Injury problems didn’t help him as his only involvement as a Test Lion was restricted to the second half of the final game of the series against the Springboks 24 years ago.

Call that bad luck, a player of his quality barely getting a Test look-in with the Lions.

Read more : South Africa legend makes ‘dangerous claim’

It puts into perspective some of those who have bemoaned their fortune on tour with the Lions since.

Still, even if such matters are relative, there are some of the class of 2021 who might be justified in believing selection hasn’t been particularly kind to them for the first Test against South Africa on Saturday.

We look at their cases.

Adam Beard

Best tackle success rate of the Lions locks in South Africa? Try Adam Beard, with 92.6 percent.

Most gain-line success? That would be Beard again, who has crossed the advantage line every time he has embarked on a run on this tour.

His work at defensive mauls has also been outstanding, and at 6ft 8in he boasts commanding height.

Undoubtedly, he has silenced those who criticised his call-up for the tour.

Indeed, so well has he played that some have rated him right up there with Maro Itoje among the top-performing Lions second rows on this trip.

But a spot in the 23 for the first Test has proven just out of reach.

Alun Wyn Jones joining the trip after his odds-defying recovery from shoulder trouble changed the picture in that the captain was always likely to start. He is a leader with a proven record in huge games when the demands are at their highest.

And the inclusion of hard-nut Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker, after South Africa A shocked the Lions run-on side with their physicality in Cape Town, meant Tadhg Beirne was pushed onto the bench to cover the lock spot, denying Beard even a spot there.

Just maybe the 6ft 8in, 18st 4lb Wales international may yet to come through to be involved later in the series — injuries happen and changes may yet be called for if results don’t go the tourists’ way.

Whatever happens, he will return to Wales better for his Lions experience.

The last nine months have been huge for him — dropped by Wales, back in the squad for the Six Nations, a strong effort in a title-winning side and now a Lions tour.

Along the way he has confounded the doubters.

But this weekend he’ll be watching rather than taking part.

At least he’ll there’s not much more he could have done to change things.

Tadhg Beirne

It’s fair to say his omission from the starting line-up hasn’t met with the approval of everyone.

One online poster called the selection of Courtney Lawes ahead of the former Scarlets turnover king “nuts”.

Another suggested such a call would be a ‘travesty’.

The physicality issue seems to have won the day for the Englishman, with Gatland evidently wanting to make sure his forwards are not pushed around.

Beirne can feel aggrieved, though.

His ability over the ball has won the Lions four turnovers to date on this tour, he has made 117 metres from 20 carries and missed only two out of 24 tackles. He’s also flung out more passes and offloads than any of his back-row rivals.

His consolation is that he’s likely to get a chance to influence matters in the final 20 minutes on Saturday.

Josh Adams

“He did have an emotional week and then on the Saturday, with the emotion and a couple of knocks he took, I said he was reasonably quiet in that game.

“That was possibly the deciding factor.”

So explained Warren Gatland about Adams’ omission from the matchday 23 for the game with South Africa this weekend.

The reference to emotion, of course, is related to the Wales wing’s partner Georgia giving birth to their first child last week.

Does it really cut it as a valid reason for leaving Adams out of the Test side?

Not really.

Adams did well enough last weekend without lighting up proceedings. Sometimes games go like that.

But if anyone should have had credit in the bank on this tour it’s been him, with outstanding performances in his previous matches.

He is a complete wing, one who can defend as well as attack, with a good aerial game and the ability to achieve turnovers.

There is absolutely no doubt about Duhan van der Merwe as an attacking force. He’s been beating defenders for fun on this tour and making huge ground with ball in hand.

But when he came up against Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima in the warm-up at Murrayfield he didn’t look altogether happy in defence.

And so far on this tour he’s missed the most tackles of the Lions’ back-three players and conceded the most turnovers.

The assumption is such matters will not have escaped the Springboks’ attention.

“Astounded” said The Rugby Paper’s Peter Jackson in a Twitter post on Adams’ omission.

Others were of a similar mind.

Adams, then, can very definitely count himself as being among the unfortunates of this selection.

Read more:Josh Adams’ Lions omission makes no sense and Gatland’s explanation lacks conviction

Jamie George

It all seemed to be going George’s way.

Lions captain for the second game with the Sharks, two tries in the match itself, huge energy and a shining up of his reputation as an accurate thrower.

Some saw him as a strong bet for the opening Test.

It turns out he’s not even in the 23.

Instead, Luke Cowan-Dickie is handed the No. 2 jersey with Ken Owens on the bench.

George, hooker in all three Lions Tests in 2017, is left with a watching brief.

The reality is all three hookers are quality players and it was going to be a tough call whoever had to miss out.

Cowan-Dickie nailed down his place with a man-of-the-match display against the Stormers and Owens’ physicality and lineout link with fellow Wales forward Alun Wyn Jones may have swung him a place on the bench.

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Liam Williams

Gatland reminded all concerned at the team announcement that South Africa are a side who kick up to 40 times a game

He had minutes earlier explained why he had left out a man who styles himself as a bomb defuser and is widely acknowledged as one of the bravest players under the high ball in the world.

That would be Liam Williams.

Confused?

Others are, too.

Stuart Hogg is a fine player.

As a counter-attacker there are not many better in the game and he is a leader as well.

But Williams can rue his fortune here.

Maybe he would have started had he not picked up a head knock last week that’s forced him through the related protocols. That wouldn’t have helped his challenge one bit.

But from here he has that blend of courage and physicality that would have come in handy from the start against South Africa.

It’s not to be this weekend, though.

Chris Harris

Another player who has performed well on this tour but it hasn’t been enough to see him secure a spot in the 23.

He is stronger defensively than Elliot Daly, who has the worst tackle success rate in the Lions squad, with just 64 percent of his hits doing what they were intended to do. That compares with Harris’ 80 percent success rate.

Daly’s gainline success rate of 50 percent is fairly ordinary, too, against Harris’ 67 percent.

But, ultimately, Daly has a big left-footed kicking game and he does beat defenders. He has also assisted more tries, four, than any other Lion on this trip.

A tight call, then.

Sadly for Harris, it went against him.

Taulupe Faletau

Unlucky or not?

He hasn’t been at his very best in South Africa this summer.

But when he clicks he has the potential to be a game-winning player.

“If you can put Taulupe Faletau in your team, put Taulupe Faletau in your team.”

So advised Squidge Rugby, sharp-eyed and respected rugby analyst, on social media.

Instead, Gatland has gone with form.

Conan hasn’t missed a tackle on this trip — 32 hits made, all of them nailed — and has made more ground as a carrier than his No. 8 rivals. Faletau, by contrast, has been a shade off it.

But we’ll see.

By the end of this series, it’s hard to imagine the Wales international will not have added to his four Lions Tests caps.

Class, after all, is said to be permanent.

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