England stars set for Lions gain and pain
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: England could provide the bulk of the British and Irish Lions squad and its most notable absentee when coach Warren Gatland unveils his tour party for the Test series against his native New Zealand.
Tuesday saw Gatland, on secondment from his role as Wales coach, and his Lions staff hold their final selection meeting ahead of Wednesday's squad announcement in London.
While the likes of England's Ben Te'o, Elliot Daly, Maro Itoje and Joe Marler have all been tipped for a first Lions campaign that will see the combined side play three Tests against world champions New Zealand, there are doubts over the prospects of several of their Red Rose colleagues.
Several British media organisations reported that centre Jonathan Joseph and lock Joe Launchbury, who both played important roles in England's successful defence of their Six Nations title, would miss out.
Meanwhile, questions remain over whether England captain Dylan Hartley, the New Zealand-born hooker who has missed more than a year of his career through suspension, will be chosen by Gatland.
Te'o, also New Zealand-born, has made just one England start in eight Test appearances.
But he starred off the bench in the Six Nations and his physical power could pose problems for the All Blacks.
Launchbury had a brilliant season with England in the absence of George Kruis but the line-out specialist recently returned from injury with Saracens, the reigning English and European club champions.
England could have their largest Lions contingent since then coach Clive Woodward, their 2003 World Cup-winning boss, picked 20 of his compatriots for what turned out to be an ill-fated 2005 series whitewash by New Zealand.
Whatever Gatland decides, the flak is unlikely to match that which greeted him when he left out Ireland great Brian O'Driscoll of the decisive and final Lions Test in Australia four years ago, a call vindicated by the tourists' 41-16 win in Sydney.
History is against the Lions in New Zealand, however, with their lone series win against the All Blacks coming back in 1971.
The 2017 party begin their 10-match tour against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on June 3.
But World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry fears a "suicidal" schedule could scupper the Lions' hopes long before the first Test in Auckland on June 24.
The Lions are set to face four Super Rugby teams plus the Maori All Blacks prior to the first Test and Henry, the only man to ever coach the Lions and the All Blacks, told ESPN: "I just wonder if the itinerary is suicidal, that's my concern.
"[The Lions] are remembered by the Test match results, but sides gain confidence and momentum through the games they play leading into those Test matches," he added.
"If they don't get success in those games, confidence is not going to be high and that is going to affect the way they play in the Test matches."