With the Six Nations having concluded this weekend and Warren Gatland that much closer to choosing his squad for this summer’s Lions Tour to New Zealand, it is worth looking at the changed landscape he faces following the recent international window. Before the tournament began I prepared a list of players I believed were likely to be involved in this summer’s tour, but with injuries and form having fluctuated over the last seven weeks, that list has changed. As with the original article, 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: Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny, Rob Kearney (Before the tournament: Rob Kearney, Liam Williams, Stuart Hogg)
Not much change in the Full-Back position following the completion of the Six Nations. I do however believe that Stuart Hogg is now the leading candidate for the test team due to his fantastic counter-attacking ability which saw him score three tries and the same number of assists during the tournament. Scotland also visibly faded without him when they lost him to injury early during the Calcutta Cup. As for the others, Leigh Halfpenny has played his way into the squad because his strong goal kicking, albeit not an area in which the Lions are lacking, but also due to his dependency under the high ball and his superior counter-attacking ability to England’s Mike Brown. The other specialist fifteen in the squad should be Ireland’s Rob Kearney, who like Halfpenny has failed to hit the heights of three or four years ago, but is still incredibly capable as a squad player and knows the Lions set-up having been in the squad in 2009 and 2013. The sole change from my original prediction is that Liam Williams is being classed as a winger rather than a full-back, as several others failed to push their claim for a place out wide.
Wingers: George North, Elliot Daly, Liam Williams, Anthony Watson (Before the tournament: Tommy Seymour, Jack Nowell, George North, Simon Zebo)
Although the 2017 Six Nations has been heralded as one of the best tournament’s in recent years due to its competitive matches and high try-per-game rate, one area where Warren Gatland is likely to be undecided is on the wing, where very few stand-outs lie. This is down to a combination of factors, the emphasis on using all fifteen men in attack has taken the emphasis away from wingers to score tries and England, the tournament winners, persisted in changing their wingers almost on a game-by-game basis. Still, Gatland does have options open to him, the most promising of which being experienced Lions campaigner George North and England’s Elliot Daly. Although criticised for his performance versus Scotland in Week Three, North proved himself in the final two games of the tournament, scoring two tries against Ireland and being a menace in defence. In Daly’s case, Eddie Jones sprung another successful tactical innovation by moving him from centre and the try he scored against Wales in Week Two was deemed by many to be the try of the tournament, both for his finishing, and Owen Farrell’s pinpoint pass. Liam Williams also proved himself a dedicated campaigner during the tournament, scoring three tries (against Italy, England and Scotland respectively) and crucially proving that he can tackle effectively, something that has let many other candidates down. The final wing spot is perhaps the most open spot in the entire touring party, with Tim Visser, Jack Nowell, Simon Zebo and Tommy Seymour among the candidates, but I’m going for Anthony Watson who is a lethal runner and works very well alongside Bath team-mate Jonathan Joseph. Keith Earls, despite his side-stepping ability did not convince in defence and it would be a surprise if he made the plane.
Centres: Jonathan Joseph, Scott Williams, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw (Before the tournament: Scott Williams, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly, Jared Payne)
Another interesting position for Warren Gatland to nail down. For his heroics versus Italy, Jonathan Joseph deserves his spot on the tour, even though he will be forced to work a lot harder to unlock the New Zealand defence than that of the Azzurri. The next selection in the team should go to Huw Jones, but having torn his hamstring, he will not be fit for the tour due to the five-month recovery period. In his place comes Scott Williams who showed a couple of nice touches during the tournament (particularly against Ireland) but needs to rediscover the form that saw him overtake Jamie Roberts in the Wales reckoning. With the other Welsh centres failing to inspire (who can forget Jonathan Davies’ kick that handed the game to England in Week Two), Gatland would do well to look to Ireland for his other centre options. Although he only played in one game during the tournament, Jared Payne proved his class versus England with the second-highest number of carries and the highest number of metres gained during the game. As a native Kiwi and having played alongside or against many of those likely to feature in the All Black test side, his knowledge off the field could also prove vital. The final spot in the centre position should go to Robbie Henshaw although he failed to score any tries during the tournament. Despite that, and the lapse against Wales that took the game decisively away from Ireland, Henshaw offers decent attacking and defensive traits, although it would be a surprise if he made the test team.
Fly-Half: Owen Farrell, Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar (Before the tournament: no change)
Provided there didn’t suffer terrible injuries, or a truly spectacular loss of form it was always odds-on that Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton were going to book their tickets for New Zealand during the Six Nations campaign. As it happened, neither disappointed, Farrell finishing the tournament as the second highest points scorer (behind Camille Lopez) and with his perfect assist for Daly against Wales under his belt, whereas Sexton masterminded England’s downfall in Dublin and proved himself physically capable under a bombardment of opposition tacklers. In a squad blessed with goal-kickers across the backs, Gatland isn’t so reliant on his fly-half for points, although both are highly competent in that regard. For the final position, it is a toss-up between Scotland’s Finn Russell and Wales’ Dan Biggar. Russell has shown signs of real quality in leading Scotland to victories over Ireland and Wales, but is inconsistent and tends to fade into the background when the chips are down. This opens the spot up for Biggar, whom Gatland knows well and trusts. He also produced a magisterial performance against England in Week Two and was undeservedly on the losing side. Still, he needs to cut out the amateur dramatics that have recently entered his game and focus on his contribution, although it is doubtful that he will make the test team at present.
Scrum-Half: Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Danny Care (Before the tournament: Conor Murray, Ben Youngs, Rhys Webb)
There is not much doubt about it, Conor Murray is the form scrum-half in the Northern Hemisphere and has been for a considerable number of years. His game management is absolutely on the money and his unflappable demeanour, coupled with his strong partnership with Jonny Sexton makes him odds on for the test team. Behind him, Rhys Webb showed a number of nice touches during the tournament, but will need to be more clinical at key times. Having said that, his distribution is solid and his speed at getting to the breakdown is a real asset, although he will be targeted due to his relatively small stature. The final spot in the touring side at this position is between the England duo Ben Youngs and Danny Care. Youngs had a brilliant first year under Jones but faded during the tournament, failing to offer the killer interventions to turn narrow victories against France and Wales into routs. Instead, Care deserves an unlikely call up on account of his quick service and his eye for the try line.
Number Eight: Billy Vunipola, Jamie Heaslip (Before the tournament: no change)
If Ross Moriarty hadn’t cemented his place in the Wales line-up it could all be so very different. But it isn’t. Moriarty had a barnstorming tournament for a Welsh team who couldn’t close games out in the final twenty (or forty, bearing in mind what happened in Paris). His relative inexperience counts against him though, and in being selected he has likely denied a place to Talupe Faletau, who is started the tournament recovering from an injury. In his place, Jamie Heaslip played well all tournament as part of Ireland’s stand-out backrow and although he may lack that extra yard of pace that defined his early career, he is dogged in defence and has toured twice before. This will likely be his last. The same does not apply to England’s Billy Vunipola, who also missed the start of the tournament to injury, but at his best is a one-man wrecking ball as Australia discovered last summer. Back to his best, Vunipola will be one of Gatland’s main attacking threats.
Flanker: Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Maro Itoje (Before the tournament: Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander, John Hardie, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier)
An area of real strength for Warren Gatland with many back-rowers having enhanced their prospects of getting on the plane to New Zealand, in contrast to some of their contemporaries behind the scrum. Justin Tipuric has mastered the art of the all-round flanker, an ever-present at the breakdown and enthusiastic with ball in hand and in the defensive line. He’s a real contender for the test team. CJ Stander is another who had an extremely impressive Six Nations, scoring three tries as Man of the Match against Italy in Week Two and forming a bulwark against opposition attacks with Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien. He also offers the option of another Number Eight, which would be useful considering the fixture congestion during the tour. Sam Warburton’s decision to give up the captaincy to focus on his game has also paid ample dividends, with many commentators naming him in their starting test team and others tipping him for the captaincy. I’m not convinced that putting that amount of pressure upon him will bring out the best of his game, but he does know Gatland extremely well and has justified his place on the field. Sean O’Brien also proved his fitness and enduring quality during the tournament, offering hard carrying and aggressive tackling. Like Stander, he offers a heavyweight option to line-up opposite bruisers such as Jerome Kaino and Ardie Savea, while Tipuric and Warburton are more mobile, but less inclined to punch holes in opposition defences. Although Peter O’Mahony put in a strong showing in the final game of the tournament versus England, I believe the final spot on the flank should go to Maro Itoje. Whether Gatland will choose to use him as a second-row or a flanker is yet to be seen, but he embodies the modern mobile loose-forward who is capable with ball in hand and without. His speed will also be crucial in combatting New Zealand’s counter-attacking threats.
Lock: Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, A. W. Jones, Jonny Gray, George Kruis (injury dependant) (Before the tournament: Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray)
Probably the strongest position from which Gatland has to choose from. England have four locks of established quality who have flourished under Eddie Jones and will be at the forefront of Gatland’s thinking. Of those, Itoje has been selected in the back-row leaving Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis (injury permitting) as three of Gatland’s five potential picks in this position. Before the tournament, I wasn’t convinced that Jones’s experiment by moving Itoje to the flank would work, but the resulting success allowed Jones to utilise Launchbury and Lawes as a hugely successful partnership throughout the tournament, with the former having been nominated for player of the championship. Kruis didn’t play any part in the tournament due to injury, but is a first-rate line-out forward and works brilliantly alongside Itoje. Another potential Lions captain is Alun Wyn Jones who has gained a good press despite his team’s disappointing final placing. I think handing him the captaincy would be a mistake based on his decision making, rather than his playing ability, but his relationship with Gatland and phenomenal work-ethic count in his favour. The final spot is a close contest between Ireland’s Iain Henderson and Scotland’s Gray brothers. Although Henderson is a real talent, he didn’t get a huge amount of game time during the tournament and may be considered a lightweight due to his sleight frame compared to Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Of the Scots brothers, Jonny Gray edges selection on the back of his superior mobility and for his domestic performances for Glasgow.
Prop: Dan Cole, Tadhg Furlong, Samson Lee, Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath, Joe Marler (Before the tournament: Dan Cole, Samson Lee, W. P. Nel, Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy)
The least heralded position on the pitch and potentially one of the most important. Any coach will tell you that a successful game plan owes itself to at least parity at scrum-time, and preferably superiority. Without a strong scrum, the Lions will be sunk against a huge New Zealand scrum comprising two former World Players of the Year (including the only second-row to have won the award). To achieve this, Gatland will likely look for a balance of experience and youthful athleticism with England’s Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola comprising the former. Although lacking an all-round game, Cole is stubbornly consistent at tighthead and has been on campaign before. The same can be said for Vunipola, who gained three test caps at the age of twenty-two and has only improved since then, proving himself to be among the world’s most mobile props. The starting name at tighthead for many commentators, Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong combines hard carrying and a strong scrummaging profile. He has also beaten the All Blacks before, not something to be overlooked. Jack McGrath also has experience of repelling the Kiwi hoards although his carrying during the tournament may not have compared to previous standards. The two final spots go to England’s Joe Marler and Wales’ Samson Lee. Marler was barely in the picture before the tournament because of Vunipola’s stranglehold on England’s first jersey, but he proved himself a rock in England’s competitive scrum and seems to have put his earlier disciplinary problems behind him. Lee benefits from the relative inexperience of Scotland’s Zander Fagerson and his relationship with Gatland, but will need to improve drastically to be considered for a test spot.
Hooker: Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Jamie George (Before the tournament: Dylan Hartley, Sean Cronin, Rory Best)
Amongst the most difficult decisions for Gatland. I have never been convinced by the argument of playing the captain regardless of form. Captain’s need to be the most committed on the field as well as effective in the dressing room. Probably the best candidate for the captaincy is Ireland’s Rory Best, who has his issues at the line-out, but captained Ireland to victory against the All Blacks in the Autumn and leads from the front. He has played for the Lions before and is well respected across the four nations. Behind him I would select Jamie George. Although a substitute for most of the Six Nations, George is a truly dynamic hooker in the loose and therefore is closest to the human dynamo that is Dane Coles. Ken Owens played well during the Six Nations, but I believe Gatland will ultimately opt for Dylan Hartley, who was never at his best during the tournament, but whose contribution as a captain cannot be doubted. If his form improves in a Northampton jersey in the next few months, he could be this year’s Lions captain.
So, out of a squad of thirty-eight, we have fifteen Englishmen, eleven Irishmen, ten Welshmen and two Scots. This may seem unduly harsh for the Scots who had their best Six Nations in a generation, but injuries to W. P. Nel, Huw Jones and John Hardie have counted against them and Finn Russell will be the next alternate if any of the selected three fly-halves gets injured. For England, a successful Six Nations and the return of several players from injury sees them with the leading contingent, many of whom will make the test squad. The Welsh have a healthy ten that flies in the face of their disappointing Six Nations campaign. It should however be born in mind that they came very close to beating France and England. For Ireland, the smart money is on Rory Best captaining the team. They will also provide a sizeable number of the starters for the test team with Furlong and Murray already pencilled in. Of course, there will be changes between now and the naming of the squad on the 19th April, but it does seem that the Lions will have a strong team to take to New Zealand to try and defend 2013’s success.