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British & Irish Lions: Will Greenwood calls on younger players to prove they can be Test-match players

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Johnny Sexton, Jonathan Davies, James Ryan and Billy Vunipola missed out on places in Warren Gatland’s squad; Jack Conan, Sam Simmonds and Bundee Aki among the surprise inclusions; the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa will be exclusively live on Sky Sports

Will Greenwood would pick Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing for the Test matches based on his recent form

Will Greenwood would pick Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing for the Test matches based on his recent form

Will Greenwood says he “categorically” did not predict Warren Gatland’s 37-man squad, and called on the younger players to prove they can be Test-match Lions.

Sam Simmonds, Bundee Aki and Jack Conan were some of the surprise inclusions in Gatland’s squad announced on Thursday, while Johnny Sexton, Jonathan Davies and Billy Vunipola were among the high-profile names to miss out.

“I love Bundee Aki as a human being and as a player, I just had not considered him at all, so I can categorically say I was not correct with my squad,” Greenwood told Sky Sports.

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The three-time Lions tourist said he felt for those who had missed the cut, but adds he is excited to see an evenly spread squad with 11 English players, 10 Welshmen, eight Scots and eight Irishmen.

“Jonathan Davies was the Lions player of the tour in 2017, a World Cup semi-finalists in 2019, came back from injury problems this season, and was part of a Six Nations championship win,” Greenwood said.

“James Ryan has had an extraordinary start to this career; everyone had him nailed on, and there’s Jonny Gray obviously, so every country has their player that could feel disgruntled.

“But what I love about it, it’s not quite 25 per cent from each country but it’s probably the closest we’ve had to that, certainly in the professional era.”

Of the 37 players selected, 18 have not been on a Lions tour before, and 2003 World Cup winner Greenwood called on the younger players to prove they are the best in Britain and Ireland.

“Some players might be intimidated by the shirt, but some who may appear to be midweek players will grow so much in the shirt. They will clearly show themselves to be a Test match Lion, and make people think ‘wow, how did I miss him?’.”

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Though there is still a little over 11 weeks before the first Test, Greenwood is already relishing some of the battles that could play out in Johannesburg and Cape Town at the end of the tour.

“Cheslin Kolbe has spent his whole career tackling bigger blokes, and very few will be as big as Duhan van der Merwe.

“Makazole Mapimpi probably thought he was unlikely to come across anyone as fast as him, but if he faces Louis Rees-Zammit he will. I love that.

“There could also be some interesting Irish-related battles in the midfield. Damian de Allende of Munster against potentially Robbie Henshaw of Leinster or Bundee Aki of Connacht.

“Whatever combination it will be, it will be a lovely sub-plot.

Stuart Hogg says Exeter team-mate Sam Simmonds deserves his inclusion in the Lions squad and believes it will lead to him playing for England again

“In the forwards, I’d love to see Duane Vermeulen coming up against Sam Simmonds.

“The Thor-like character that is Duane Vermeulen, who is built from a tree trunk, against the smaller-in-stature but ferociously quick No 8 Sam Simmonds.

“The second row battle will be incredible; Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert, Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itjoe – that’s proper best in the world against the best in the world. That’s a proper outfit.”

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Greenwood revealed his starting Test side based on form if the game were being played this weekend, putting Tadhg Beirne in the number six jersey after the Irishman “ripped it up in the Six Nations”.

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He went for Finn Russell at fly-half, Rees-Zammit on the wing, and an Ireland team-mate of Beirne’s to partner Alun Wyn Jones in the second row.

“Iain Henderson reminds me of Jeremey Davidson in 1997,” Greenwood said. “I think he’s close to the player that Andy Farrell couldn’t leave out of Ireland – he had a massive Six Nations.”

“This is purely on form,” Greenwood added. “The one thing you can guarantee is that it will all change by July 24!”

Will Greenwood’s Lions XV on form: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Louis Rees-Zammit, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Conor Murray, 1 Wyn Jones, 2 Ken Owens, Tadhg Furlong, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 5 Iain Henderson, 6 Tadhg Beirne, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Taulupe Faletau.

‘No one is left on the bench’

The Lions will be hoping to beat the Boks and help ignite the interest of the younger generation as rugby tries to rebuild in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a subject Greenwood is passionate about, and along with other World Cup winners Martin Johnson, Austin Healey and Mike Tindall, he is taking part in the Festival of Sport in Holkham in August.

The festival is a weekend affair in which children from ages five to 17 are offered the opportunity to learn more about the sports they love and discover new ones alongside internationals and Olympians.

“As an ex-sportsman, I see my role as walking the walk and being down at my local rugby club, highlighting the benefits of an outdoor life, exercise, good food, family and community,” Greenwood said.

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“This festival has the ability to show all that. I go there to coach rugby but I can’t wait to have a go on the trampoline, the zorb or the archery.

“I grew up loving sport and loving the outdoors and I think it’s very important to maintain those opportunities for the next generation.”

The festival offers children a chance to try rugby, netball, cricket, tennis, hockey, and football – as well as fun activities like zorbing and dragonboat racing – but Greenwood says it’s not only about offering training to the best athletes, but also a weekend for discovering a love for being outdoors and active.

“We want to remind parents what they are missing,” he said. “They may be putting suits on and focussing on work, and therefore may, as we all do, sometimes forget the things that used to put smiles on our faces as youngsters.

“It’s mainly about the children, but there are so many strings to what we hope to achieve out of it.

“The mantra is: no one is left on the bench. All levels are welcome. This is not an elite sporting bubble.

“If elite sports people turning up we will help them, but this is not about being on an England camp or an Olympic training camp, this is about the joy of sport.”

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