At the end of 2016 we had our first stab at the likely Lions’ squad to head to New Zealand to take on the reigning World Champions. Now the 6 Nations has finished it’s time to revisit our choices and see what changes we would make.
The 6 Nations was probably one of the highest quality tournaments for some time with the continuing resurgence of Scotland adding to the base of players to choose from.
One area Gatland and co. will have to think about is the range of styles played by the 4 nations and which approach they will use to try and get the best of the All Blacks. Scotland and England tend to play a higher risk brand of rugby than Ireland and Wales, who take a more pragmatic approach to the game.
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. The 2017 tournament wasn’t his best, with a number of uncharacteristic errors by his own high standard, but primarily for his 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 was arguably one of the players of the 6 Nations , even though there are question marks over his defence. Hogg is 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 stronger all round game we will go with Rob Kearney.
If full back was a position of strength, wing is at the opposite end of the spectrum with no real stand out options.
One player who really used the 6 Nations as a springboard for selection for the Lions is England’s Elliot Daly. The pace he hit the pass in England’s match wining try against Wales at Cardiff showed he has the pace for wing while also having the flexibility to revert back to outside centre if needed.
After having a very up and down tournament, George North should have done enough to travel with the squad. 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 fourth 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. He may have had a relatively quiet 6 Nations but his 2016-17 form warrants a place.
Others who are in the mix but we wouldn’t select are; Zebo, Trimble, Earls, Visser, Nowell, May and Watson.
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, while his growing leadership capabilities shouldn’t be overlooked.
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 him a squad member. Williams had a strong 6 Nations but needs to improve his passing off his wrong side and minimise the number of “ball rip” tackles he attempts.
Those in contention that miss out include: Jon Davies, Jamie Roberts, Gary Ringrose, Alex Dunbar and Ben T’eo.
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 and seems to be continually being patched up, 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 where he controls the game superbly while providing a constant attacking threat.
Joining Sexton is Scotland’s Finn Russell. This maybe a controversial choice but 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 and Dan Biggar.
This is probably a unique position in that the 3 contenders are probably already known.
Although an excellent player, Greg Laidlaw, who was injured in the 6 Nations, 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 Rhys Webb from the Ospreys. After injuring his ankle in the Autumn international against Australia, he has come back with a bang. He may give away silly penalties and not always make the right decisions, but his attacking threat outweighs these negatives.
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 has been carried over in to the 6 Nations and it 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.
Back in December we said the final tight head spot would be a shoot out between Scotland’s WP Nel and Wales’ Samson Lee. Unfortunately Nel hasn’t had any game time for Scotland and Lee has lost his Wales spot! Lee’s replacement Tomas Francis hasn’t convinced us yet he is test level material so he is out of the running.
Scotland’s impressive young prop Zander Fagerson comes in to the equation but with Scotland’s scrum a big area of weakness, a case for Fagerson is difficult. Attention then switches to Ireland’s John Ryan and England’s Kyle Sinckler. Given we want athletic, ball carrying forwards Sinckler gets the nod.
Given Gatland is a gnarly, Kiwi hooker he surely isn’t going to turn down the option of choosing another gnarly, Kiwi hooker is he? Probably not, which is why we think Dylan Hartley will go, even though he has had a pretty average 6 Nations.
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 is arguably England’s best hooker.
The final place comes to a straight shoot out between Rory Best and Ken Owens of Wales.
He may be 34 years old but Rory Best seems to have found a new injection of energy and verve this year while his leadership credentials will also be a plus in his column. We shouldn’t also discount the experience he has of playing and beating New Zealand.
Ken Owens had his best series of games for Wales, and seems to have emerged from Scott Baldwin’s shadow. Is it a coincidence that this has occurred while Gatland has been on his gap year? We are not sure Owens is fully appreciated by Gatland which is why we think he will choose Rory Best.
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 – the 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 has played a fair bit at 6 in this tournament) who seems to be able to do everything, has to go. Joe Launchbury gets the 2nd spot due to his excellent 6 Nations. Launchbury does the hard work in hitting rucks and making tackles but his ball carrying game is underrated. Given George Kruis’ injury we will also take Courtney Lawes, with the caveat that a strong end of season for the Saracens’ star may see him regain this spot from Lawes.
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. The full extent of his injury in the game against France should be known shortly.
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 CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien have to travel. 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.
In December we also had Jamie Heaslip in the squad but after a fairly average 6 Nations he has fallen down the pecking order. He may also find that come the Autumn his international place is under threat with the return of Peter O’Mahony to 6 with Stander moving to 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 although he is returning from injury this consistency means he also gets a tour spot.
After an excellent 6 Nations Justin Tipuric should also be rewarded with a squad place. Tipuric doesn’t do as much of the hard graft as Warburton but he has become a leading lineout option for Wales and has the engine that will be needed against a mobile New Zealand team.
Billy Vunipola (another of the dominant Saracens pack) has arguably been the form player in the northern hemisphere this calendar year. He may also be coming back from injury but 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.
Those that just miss out are: Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony, Nathan Hughes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Hamish Watson, Ross Moriarty and Thomas Young.
15. Stuart Hogg
14. George North
13. Jonathan Joseph
12. Owen Farrell
11. Elliot Daly
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray
8. Billy Vunipola
7. Sam Warburton (captain)
6. CJ Stander
5. Maro Itoje
4. Joe Launchbury
3. Tadhg Furlong
2. Jamie George
1. Mako Vunipola
16. Jack McGrath
17. Rory Best
18. Dan Cole
19. Alun-Wyn Jones
20. Taulupe Falateu
21. Rhys Webb
22. Robbie Henshaw
23. Liam Williams
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