As 2016 comes to an end it’s time to pick our 2016 British and Irish Lions tour squad for the long journey to New Zealand next year.
The Lions will be a 37 man squad and we have tried to broadly follow the make up of the 2013 squad which was; 3 full backs, 4 wings, 4 centres, 2 fly halves, 3 scrum halves, 6 props, 3 hookers, 5 second rows and 7 back row.
The style of play we would adopt will be based on the current English approach of playing with an abrasive, powerful pack that has a number of ball carriers. These will be coupled with backs with pace, who can cope with the movement of New Zealand but also exploit the gaps our ball carriers will create.
Here we go…..
Full back is one of the positions with impressive strength in depth, with arguably each of the 4 nations having a top class option. For his minimal error count and world class goal kicking Leigh Halfpenny has to make the squad.
In 2013 Stuart Hogg travelled as a 15 but also provided back up at fly half. He has had an impressive season with ball in hand and the sort of player that can win a game with a bit of magic; he has to travel, but only as a 15.
The final spot is a straight battle between Mike Brown and Rob Kearney (we will come to Liam Williams in a bit). We are big fans of Mike Brown, not only for the way he plays the game but his frequent bit of niggly theatrics is also entertaining. Kearney has come back to a bit of form as well so it’s a tough decision. For his attacking threat we will go with Mike Brown.
If full back was a position of strength, wing is at the opposite end of the spectrum with no stand out options.
Our first choice is George North. Looking back at North’s form in 2013 it is probably fair to say North’s game has regressed. This may be due to his problems with concussion or perhaps because of the set up at Northampton, but his attacking game has diminished and his all round game has failed to improve.
We would also take his Welsh colleague Liam Williams. Williams has been one of the stars of Welsh rugby over the last season or so with his gung-ho attacking style. For all the undoubted upsides he does have defensive lapses and moments of madness. At wing his attacking skills can be utilised but his defensive frailties hidden.
The third spot goes to Tommy Seymour and not just because he would be the token Scottish choice. Seymour has been a potent force for Glasgow in recent times and his nose for the try line gets him a spot.
The final place comes down to a shoot out between a number of players; Zebo, Trimble, Earls, Visser, Nowell, May and Yarde. There is no real standout amongst this group so we will go for the talents of Simon Zebo.
Choosing 4 centres is pretty tough given the number of options, with the final decision greatly influenced by the style of play the team wants to adopt. Our first choice is England’s Owen Farrell. His ability to slot in to 10, his strong defence and his goal kicking attributes give him the nod.
Second up is Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw, who has matured nicely over the past year or so to provide not just a physical presence but an attacking threat, as we saw in his match sealing try against New Zealand.
Farrell’s England colleague Jonathan Joseph will also be touring in our squad. He may not be the abrasive physical type of centre that has become more popular in recent years, but his pace and movement are perfect for exploiting the space provided by our bigger ball carriers.
The last seat is given to Scott Williams. For a long time Williams has been in the shadow of his compatriots Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, but no longer. His defence allied to his strong running lines makes his a strong squad member.
With Farrell covering 10 there are just 2 slots available and a number of strong contenders. Although he may be the wrong side of 30 a place has to be found for Johnny Sexton. After a bit of dip in form after his French sojourn, Sexton seems to be getting back to his best form where he controls the game superbly while providing a constant attacking threat.
Joining Sexton is Scotland’s Finn Russell. Not since Gregor Townsend has Scotland been able to choose a 10 with such a natural rugby brain. He also brings something different to the Lions squad with his brand of high risk rugby and unpredictability; the sort of player who could quickly move his game to another level surrounded by players of top quality.
Those who just miss out are George Ford, Dan Biggar and the rapidly improving Joey Carbery.
Another position where the Home Nations each have at least one top class option to call on.
Although an excellent player, Greg Laidlaw misses out because of his lack of attacking threat so our first choice will be Conor Murray, a veteran of the successful 2013 tour. Murray’s kicking game is excellent and his big game experience will be crucial in the pivotal scrum half position.
Another 2013 touring party member, Ben Youngs is chosen for his lightening fast breaks around the ruck and maul. With some of the forwards punching big holes in the New Zealand defence, the likes of Youngs will be crucial in exploiting those gaps.
The final spot goes to the currently injured Rhys Webb from the Ospreys. After injuring his ankle in the Autumn international against Australia, he is due back in the New Year, which will give him ample time to find his previous good form.
Previously held back by his poor scrummaging, Mako Vunipola has made huge strides in this department and it is no longer an area of weakness. Jack McGrath gets the nod over his Leinster team mate Cian Healy while the athleticism and ball carrying of Scarlet’s Rob Evans means he also makes the squad.
Tadhg Furlong’s impressive autumn series means he is in pole position to get the tight head Lions spot but he will face still competition from Dan Cole, who is another player whose game seems to have evolved over the last 18 months, to the point where he is not seen as just a scrummager.
The last spot is a battle between Scotland’s WP Nel and Wales’ Samson Lee. Lee still seems to be getting back to his best after a series injury while Nel himself has been troubled by a neck injury. The stronger all round game of WP Nel gets him the nod.
This is the bit in the article where we have to bite our tongue and choose the England captain Dylan Hartley. Famously missed the 2013 B&I Lions tour due to (another) disciplinary action surely he won’t be stupid enough to jeopardise his place on this trip….would he?
Pushing him hard in an England shirt is the Saracens’ hooker Jamie George, and we would also take him on the plane. He has been a dominant force in what is a very powerful Saracens pack this season and even though he lacks international experience his form warrants selection.
He may be 34 years old but Rory Best is our third selection. Like Rob Kearey, Best seems to have found a new injection of energy and verve this year and will push the England pair for the test spot; it’s a test position that is up for grabs and will probably be decided on tour form.
A really tough area to choose from. Who is in contention? From England – Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje and George Kruis. From Ireland – Iain Henderson and Devon Toner. From Scotland – Gray brothers, and from Wales – Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris. Selecting 5 from that lot isn’t easy.
We will start with 3 Englishmen – the rising star of Maro Itoje (who we may also consider playing at 6) who seems to be able to do everything, has to go. So too does his Saracen’s colleague George Kruis with Joe Launchbury getting the third England spot. Launchbury does the hard work in hitting rucks and making tackles but his ball carrying game is underrated.
Scotland’s Jonny Gray has been in great form this season and arguably usurped his brother as the best player in the Gray household. Our final choice is Alun-Wyn Jones from the Ospreys. If for no other reason, Jones is chosen for his force of character and ability to galvanise and push on those around him; important characteristics on a long tour to New Zealand.
If we thought full back and second row were competitive spots, our options at back row are mind boggling. Where to start? Well, we want our team to be physical and abrasive but also they must be able to carry the ball. There are probably about 20 players in contention for these spots – too many to list, so we’ll dive in and say who we would pick.
From Ireland Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien have to travel. Heaslip’s game has improved this year, with a willingness to do a bit more of the donkey work and not just look for glory passes on the wing. Stander has been a huge force for Munster in recent times, and brings South African power running with a good rugby brain. O’Brien continues to be a potent mix of a jackaling 7 with the barnstorming runs of a number 8.
The Lions management will be hoping that Sam Warburton remains injury free, as he could be crucial in slowing the All Black ball and stealing the odd turnover or two.Bath’s Taulupe Faletau very rarely has a bad game and this consistency means he also gets a tour spot.
Billy Vunipola (another of the dominant Saracens pack) has arguably been the form player in the northern hemisphere this calendar year. For a heavy man he moves very well and is difficult to stop off the base of the scrum.
The last selection is theblitzdefence’s favourite player James Haskell, who seems to have found a new lease of life under the Aussie Eddie Jones. As long as he focuses on the rugby his attributes will be a welcome addition to the back row mix.
15. Leigh Halfpenny
14. Tommy Seymour
13. Jonathan Joseph
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. George North
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray
8. Billy Vunipola
7. Sean O’Brien
6. CJ Stander
5. George Kruis
4. Maro Itoje
3. Tadhg Furlong
2. Jamie George
1. Mako Vunipola
16. Jack McGrath
17. Dylan Hartley
18. Dan Cole
19. Alun-Wyn Jones
20. Taulupe Falateu
21. Ben Youngs
22. Owen Farrell
23. Stuart Hogg
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