With the Six Nations less than three weeks away and the Lions tour looming large in the summer, Warren Gatland is closing in on his selections for the world’s foremost touring test team and will be looking for a mix of both established quality and form players in order to fell the All Blacks on their home turf. As an experiment, I have selected a Pre-Six Nations Lions squad that I will compare against a Post-Six Nations Lions squad in an article following the tournament itself, and then ultimately compare the two when Warren Gatland names his final squad in the spring. I have chosen to increase the squad depth from the 2013 Lions squad by one to thirty-eight, adding a third fly-half.
Full Backs: Rob Kearney, Liam Williams, Stuart Hogg
Both Kearney and Hogg have toured with the Lions before (Kearney having been to South Africa in 09 and Australia in 13) and have remained the first choice options for their respective countries since. Kearney, in the tradition of great Irish full-backs is rock solid under the high ball and kicks well out of hand, but arguably hasn’t had a much playing time this season as he would’ve liked at Leinster. In Hogg, the Lions have a different type of player, an outstanding counter-attacker who offers additional options going forward and devastating running angles given the chance. He also has a fantastic boot and offers long-range penalty potential. Saracens-bound Williams is perhaps a mix of the two, offering more attacking potential than the ageing Kearney, but also offering assuredness under the high ball and a decent boot. He also offers an additional option on the wing. Unfortunate to miss out is Mike Brown, who may well feel that Eddie Jones’ decision to rule himself out of coaching contention had a decisive impact upon his omission.
Wingers: Tommy Seymour, Jack Nowell, George North, Simon Zebo
Not an area of particular strength for the home nations at the present. Zebo has played for the Lions before having been called up to replace the injured Tommy Bowe in Australia four years ago, but the form of the other wingers that year (Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland etc) has fluctuated wildly since then and a new raft of wing talent has taken their place on the pitch. The leading contender appears to be Scotland’s Tommy Seymour who combines both a dynamic attacking presence and the muscular physicality crucial when playing against the likes of Julian Savea. He also offers a cross-field kick option if the Lions are finding it hard going through more conservative channels. Jack Nowell, although having suffered from recent injury problems does appear to be back to his attacking best, his line breaks against Ulster in the most recent Champions Cup match comparing favourably against his opposite winger, Charles Piutau. Concerns still exist over his defensive skills though. Finally, George North is a trusted veteran of the Lions set up, who despite concussion concerns, offers relentless running in attack and sizeable presence in defence, and there is no one better than Warren Gatland to bring the best out of him. Amongst those likely to miss out are Andrew Trimble, Anthony Watson and Leigh Halfpenny, the latter who could be considered a third full-back if Gatland decided to primarily utilise Liam Williams as a winger. As it is, it is likely that injuries will be sustained on tour and therefore one or two on this list will be able to wear the Lions shirt after all.
Centres: Scott Williams, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly, Jared Payne (injury permitting)
In contrast to the wing position, the home nations are blessed with a slew of talented centres, many of whom will be new to the Lions set up following the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll and the injuries sustained by Manu Tuilagi. First up is Wales’ Scott Williams, whose brilliant running lines and defensive certainty were crucial in rescuing Wales’ disappointing autumn campaign. He will likely be supported by Robbie Henshaw, who has had a breakout season for Leinster, offering more physicality in defence than Williams and arguably better handling. Despite his sending off against Argentina in the autumn, Elliot Daly also deserves the nod for an impressive season with Wasps. Not only is Daly extremely fleet of foot and adept at finding holes in tired opposition defences (such as recently against Toulouse) but his long-range kicking ability from both hand and tee gives him an extremely useful status as a utility back. And finally, providing he recovers from a kidney injury that has kept him out since the start of December, Jared Payne offers the street smarts needed to beat the All Blacks. As a native Kiwi and having been part of the size that beat the All Blacks last year in Chicago, Payne knows exactly what is required to defeat the world’s best team, and has a calm temperament that will act as an inspiration to his more youthful colleagues. There are a great many talented centres who will feel unfortunate to have missed out on Warren Gatland’s list, amongst them Huw Jones, Jonathan Joseph, Gary Ringrose and Jonathan Davies, but it was the all-round ability of the four selected that took the decisions away from them.
Fly-Half: Owen Farrell, Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar
Although Stuart Hogg was used as a fly-half on a couple of occasions during the last Lions tour, I feel it is necessary to have three fly-halves in the touring squad this year, considering the talent of the teams the Lions are to face and the impressive selection of home nations fly-halves at the present. The first name on the list has to be England’s Owen Farrell who was crucial in England’s unbeaten 2016. An outstanding first receiver with the ability both to break the line and to distribute, his tactical kicking is also up there with the very best. A fellow Lions veteran is Jonathan Sexton, whose form for Leinster has improved markedly this season, offering reliable kicking from the tee and a gain line breaking ability to match that of Farrell. The final position is a toss up between Dan Biggar, Scotland’s Finn Russell and George Ford, and depends upon how Gatland conceptualises his team playing. If he favours the Eddie Jones’ model, he will likely select Ford as a fly-half cum centre to inter-link with Farrell and offer a secondary kicking option at centre. Alternately, he could stick with what he knows, selecting Biggar as the third option with his up-and-under accuracy acting in his favour. The final choice would be Russell, who although beguiling has the tendency to make tactical mistakes, and is a very similar player to both Farrell and Sexton.
Scrum-Half: Conor Murray, Ben Youngs, Rhys Webb
Tricky to choose between, but with one current stand out candidate, the position of Scrum-Half is very much up for grabs during the Six Nations. It would be a huge surprise however if Conor Murray was not selected in the touring side. As part of a vastly improved Munster outfit this season, Murray is a master at tactical kicking and incisive attacking play, his clever passing from open play bringing other, quicker backs into play. England’s Ben Youngs is also likely to be on the plane following his spectacular performances in the autumn that included a try against Australia at Twickenham. Although similar in many regards to Murray, his tendency to take quick penalties could be crucial against a re-aligning All Blacks defensive line, although he does have the tendency to become frustrated when his forwards are struggling. The final spot in the backs is a toss-up between the Welsh pairing of Rhys Webb and Gareth Davies and Scotland’s Grieg Laidlaw. Webb remains injured having turned his ankle during Wales’ disappointing loss to Australia In November, but would be ahead of his Davies in the reckoning. For Laidlaw, his kicking ability from the tee is a big plus, particularly if Gatland intends to start with Farrell, but his play around the park, although improved this year, is laboured and he will likely struggle against an All Black team who will target him for his size.
Number Eight: Billy Vunipola, Jamie Heaslip
Another impressive category for Warren Gatland to decide from is the Number Eight position, where only Scotland, seemingly, don’t have a chance of being represented. Although currently injured, England’s Billy Vunipola is a leading contender to be in Warren Gatland’s squad, his ability to gain hard yards from the back of the scrum an invaluable skill against an All Black team that prides itself on winning the battle for forward momentum. Another possible contender is Ireland’s stalwart Jamie Heaslip, who never gives an inch in defence and has had a very successful season with Leinster up to this point. Plus, he is a Lions veteran having been part of the Lions set-up on the last two occasions and it is this longevity that could count decisively in his favour. A different option would be Wales’ Taulupe Faletau, who although currently injured having suffered two major injuries in his first season with Bath, is a titanic carrier and an aggressive tackler and is well known to Gatland. The final option at eight would be Ireland’s CJ Stander, who may well get into the squad as a flanker, but like Heaslip offers unremitting go-forward with ball in hand and sturdy defensive qualities.
Flanker: Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander, John Hardie, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier
Perhaps Warren Gatland’s greatest difficulty will be sifting through the abundant riches at his disposal on the flanks. In 2013, Tom Croft, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric were amongst the backrow stalwarts called upon to overcome the likes of Michael Hooper and Ben Mowen. The position has evolved since then though, and although British teams remain largely unable to produce the dynamic breakdown forwards favoured in the Southern Hemisphere, it doesn’t mean that the Lions will be necessarily second best. High up on Gatland’s list will be Wales’ Justin Tipuric, whose lithe running style belies his uncompromising tackling and impressive handling and distribution. Behind him, CJ Stander looks like they obvious choice as a utility back-row, but is also a player very much in form. Although currently injured, Scotland’s John Hardie will also be valued by Gatland as a breakdown forward who, although less mobile than his colleagues, is notoriously difficult to shift having got his hands on the ball, and is also a New Zealand native. Peter O’Mahony has also been in brilliant form for Munster in the last few months, and is hugely dependable when push comes to shove. He deserves a place in the tour team. Considering the number of currently injuries at the position, including those of Dan Lydiate, Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Sean O’Brien, the final spot at flanker is very much up for grabs depending on who can recover most quickly and Six Nations form. In the event that none of these four are fit to tour, another Irishman in the form of Josh van der Flier is likely to get the nod, his relative inexperience belying an impressive athleticism and he has experience of beating the All Blacks. Whether Sam Warburton gets a look in depends entirely upon a return to form in the next couple of months.
Lock: Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray
An area in which England and Scotland particularly excel and offer extremely healthy contingents. More so than the backrow, the position of lock forward has witnessed a transformation in the Northern Hemisphere in the last four years, with second-rows no longer lumbering line-out jumpers only good for trying to batter holes through the middle. Today’s locks are consummate athletes, effective both with ball in hand and without and acting as additional back-row forwards when required. It should be no surprise then that Maro Itoje will be the first on Gatland’s team sheet. Itoje has exploded onto the scene in the last couple of years unlike any player since Paul O’Connell, offering real physicality and sheer speed to go with an extremely effective ball-ripping technique and an impressive tackle rate. Alongside him will be selected his England colleague George Kruis, not merely because between them they rival Brodie Rettalick and Sam Whitelock as the best lock pairing in the world, but also because Kruis is invaluable at the line-out. Next up has to be Alun Wyn Jones. A potential captain and a Lions stalwart from four years ago, Jones has enough experience to counter-balance that of his younger, faster colleagues, but knows how to win and has a pre-existing rapport with Gatland. The other two lock places are likely to go to the highly destructive Scottish brothers, the Grays, who have played in integral part in Scotland’s improving form in the last couple of years and add an attacking dynamism that almost matches Itoje’s. The only other question revolves over whether Gatland would choose to utilise Itoje primarily as a flanker on the tour, thereby freeing up another slot for either Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Devin Toner or Iain Henderson.
Prop: Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy, Dan Cole, Samson Lee, W.P. Nel
Another area where the home nations have injury problems, although mercifully many appear to be only short-term issues. If he recovers from a knee injury sustained in December, Mako Vunipola will be almost certainly on the plane to New Zealand with his abilities all-round in the loose and as a scrummager crucial if the Lions attempt to match the All Blacks blow by blow. Jack McGrath and Cian Healy are also likely to be part of the touring squad, McGrath for his strong showings for Leinster this season and Healy for his nous as a long-time campaigner and his scrummaging ability. In addition, Dan Cole is deserving of a place having been a constant presence in England’s unbeaten 2016, and all that he lacks in pace is gained back at the coalface. With the selection at tight-head looking a little bare, Gatland will also likely turn to the dependable Samson Lee, who, although he has struggled with injuries is a formidable presence in defence and another strong scrummager. W.P. Nel has recently returned from injury and as arguably the home nations’ strongest scrummager and a handful in the loose will complete Gatland’s prop cohort. Unfortunate to miss out on this list are the tightheads Tadhg Furlong and Zander Fagerson, whilst Gethin Jenkins may feel himself unfortunate to have lost out to Cian Healy. With the propping position likely to sustain injuries though, there is every chance that they will be included in the tour at some point.
Hooker: Dylan Hartley, Sean Cronin (injury permitting), Rory Best
A slightly contentious position this one, and not without the need for careful judgement on Gatland’s part. Despite his current suspension and tendency towards indiscretions, England captain Dylan Hartley should be part of the squad based on his obvious abilities as captain and his strong performance in the scrum and line-out. Helpfully, his temper seems to flair more often in the domestic game then when playing in the white jersey, which is a reassuring bonus. In addition, Sean Cronin would be hard done by not to gain a place although he is currently injured and unlikely to return before April. Unlike Hartley, he offers real dynamism in the loose to match that of his backrow and second row colleagues and is reliable at the line-out. The final spot on the tour team rests on the style Gatland chooses to play whilst in New Zealand. If he favours a hard-running approach in an attempt to best the All Blacks at their own game, then Irish captain Rory Best will be overlooked in favour of England’s Jamie George, who has ample experience of high intensity games and provides a perfect foil to Hartley. If however, Gatland is looking for tried and trusted experience, and knowledge of beating the All Blacks, then Best will get the nod. Scott Baldwin and Ross Ford will need to have imperious Six Nations campaigns to dislodge the first two especially.
In total then, out of a squad of thirty-eight, we have fourteen Irishmen, ten Englishmen, eight Welshmen and six Scots. It seems a reasonable mix of players across the four home nations and in general reflects the current quality of the respective teams (with England’s numbers slightly limited by injury). The Six Nations will no doubt bring surprises though, Scotland may perform better than expected and there are bound to be injuries that could bring the current second string into contention.