Lock Joe Launchbury and centre Jonathan Joseph are set to lead a list of shock English exclusions from the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. Both men, who starred in England’s Six Nations triumph, face being left out of Warren Gatland’s squad, which will be named at 12:00 BST (13:00 SA Time) on Wednesday.
About 14 Englishmen are expected to be in the 37-39-man party, including prop Kyle Sinckler and centre Ben Te’o.
But England captain Dylan Hartley’s chances are rated as 50-50.
Other stalwarts of Eddie Jones’ side, such as flankers James Haskell and Chris Robshaw, and fly-half George Ford, are also thought to be unlikely to force their way into Gatland’s plans at this stage.
Despite finishing fifth in the Six Nations, Wales are still set for a strong contingent of up to 11 players, with the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, prospective captain Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies and George North among those highly likely to be included.
Conversely, winning three of their five matches in the Championship seems unlikely to have helped Scotland’s representatives, with full-back Stuart Hogg the only selection certainty.
The coaches will meet for a final selection meeting on Tuesday, with Lions sources insisting nothing is yet set in stone.
Wasps forward Launchbury, 26, was short-listed for Six Nations player of the tournament, but faces fierce competition in the second row.
Jones and England’s Maro Itoje are certainties to make the touring party, but Launchbury is believed to have slipped behind compatriots George Kruis and Courtney Lawes in the pecking order. Gatland is also understood to be keen on Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan.
Ryan’s fellow Irishman Iain Henderson also excelled when Ireland beat England in Dublin on the final weekend of the Six Nations.
Joseph has been tipped by many pundits to start the Test series at outside centre, but Gatland’s preference for size in midfield could see the likes of Te’o and Davies preferred.
Meanwhile, despite captaining England to consecutive Six Nations titles, Hartley is struggling to force his way into the squad as one of the three hookers, with Ireland’s Rory Best and Wales’ Ken Owens vying for places along with England second-choice Jamie George.
The tour begins on 3 June and features a 10-game schedule, culminating in a three-Test series against the All Blacks.
The Lions will be looking for a second series win in New Zealand, with their only triumph to date a 2-1 victory in 1971.
BBC rugby reporter Chris Jones
Gatland and his assistants are meeting on Tuesday and there is a chance things can change, but I do think it is a case of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
What I am hearing is there are some pretty high-profile players who will miss out. As well as Launchbury, who has really fallen victim to the fierce competition in the second row, and Joseph, I think England captain Hartley is odds-against making it. But if one of the selectors puts their neck on the line for him in that meeting then that can change.
Every time it looks like a big name is missing out, you look at the options coming in. There will be a lot of uproar and unrest in many quarters, nothing splits opinion like a Lions squad announcement. Scotland fans could be up in arms, as they may only have a maximum of four players in this trip and they finished higher than Wales in the Six Nations, who may have 11 players.
This year not as many players are inked in from the start, but up to 70 players have a strong case.
The Lions will play all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby sides, the Maori All Blacks, plus three Tests in Auckland and Wellington.
Former All Blacks coach Graham Henry has questioned the “demanding” schedule, saying it is potentially “suicidal”.
“There is huge pressure on the Lions,” Henry said “They are playing New Zealand Maori, they are playing the five franchised teams – and those five franchised teams have nothing to lose, no pressure on them at all, so they will fire everything at the Lions and take them on.
“Hopefully they [the Lions] have the ability to overcome that. But really when you tour, you need to ensure some momentum is created by results and you just wonder how they are going to go into the Test series with that itinerary.”
|Lions tour to New Zealand – fixtures|
|June 3 – Provincial Union Team, Whangarei|
|June 7 – Blues, Auckland|
|June 10 – Crusaders, Christchurch|
|June 13 – Highlanders, Dunedin|
|June 17 – Maori All Blacks, Rotorua|
|June 20 – Chiefs, Hamilton|
|June 24 – All Blacks, Auckland|
|June 27 – Hurricanes, Wellington|
|July 1 – All Blacks, Wellington|
|July 8 – All Blacks, Auckland|