Warren Gatland will end months of speculation tomorrow when he announces the 37-man Lions squad selected to tour New Zealand this summer.
The quality of this year’s Six Nations has added a new level of intensity to the quadrennial inter-fan debate on selection. English fans, buoyed by back-to-back Six Nations wins, believe this is the year that the men-in-white can dominate the Lions red, with some suggesting up to ten English players could start the first test. The Irish fans, the only ones to have experienced victory against this summer’s formidable opponent, will feel that their team deserves a strong representation in the touring party. Scotland, ever the under-represented minority, had their strongest tournament in years and have some star individuals who will feel they’ve earned their spot. The Welsh players then, following a disappointing Six Nations, would arguably be the most likely to miss out. However, with Gatland as coach and the 2013 victory firmly in the minds of the selectors, a healthy Welsh contingent remains likely.
Predictions, in sport and in politics, have proved themselves pointless as of late. Leicester winning the title then sacking Ranieri less than a year later. Connacht winning last year’s Pro12 title. Tony Bellew beating David Haye. Trump. Brexit. And now a snap election. And, to my surprise, doing a psychology discovery module last term didn’t teach me to mind read (doesn’t that defeat the point of studying it?). So, as the sun sets on the pre-press conference period of speculation, hype and the apparently defunct ‘expert columns’, all I can do is offer a final opinion on the squad selection. Oh, and pray that Warren Gatland has an appreciation for student blog posts and an appetite for Theresa May-esque U-turns.
Annoying as he is, Brian Moore is right: the front row is key. At loosehead, Mako Vunipola and Jack McGrath are shoe-ins, with Healy and Marler contending for the third spot. I would go for Healy, an explosive impact player with previous tour experience. At tighthead, a notoriously difficult position to perfect, the rising Irish star Tadhg Furlong will compete to start against Dan Cole, the respected elder of northern hemisphere tightheads. Kyle Sinckler, a stellar performer for Harlequins in the last two seasons and a breakthrough star in the Six Nations, can provide some X-factor off the bench.
With the hooker debate comes the captain debate, which I’ll address later. But, in terms of pure ability as a hooker, I would pick Rory Best, Jamie George and Ken Owens, omitting Dylan Hartley. In the Six Nations, the England captain’s contributions on the field were meagre in comparison to Owens, whose tackle and carry stats made him almost a fourth back-row. George has shown his quality at Saracens and deserves a shot at the big-time.
The lanky lineout men have proven to be the hardest decision for Gatland this year. Ultimately, it’s a good thing – all the contenders merit not only a touring spot but a starting place. Gatland took 5 locks in 2013 and will likely do the same again, given the intensity of a Test against New Zealand. Alun Wyn Jones, Wales’ standout performer in the difficult years since their last Six Nations win, is a definite. His leadership qualities and experience will be essential, given the youthfulness of his competitors. The youngest two, Jonny Gray and Maro Itoje (both 22), can rival Retallick and Whitelock with their all-round skills. Joe Launchbury’s Six Nations performances simply cannot be ignored; I’d pick him over compatriots Lawes and Kruis. My final choice, Iain Henderson, is perhaps an outsider, having not started most of Ireland’s Six Nations games. A very mobile player, he provides something different from the heavyweight carriers listed above, and his energy will be invaluable in the midweek matches.
Unusually, options in the back row this year are relatively limited. At flanker, Warburton, Stander, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Tipuric are the favourites to go and also my picks, and I can’t see Gatland choosing differently. At number eight, I would reluctantly leave Jamie Heaslip at home in favour of Vunipola and Faletau. It’s a similar situation to the second row – all three deserve a place – but Vunipola is undroppable following his imperious performances under Eddie Jones, and Faletau’s support play and defensive workrate will be vital against the uber-fit All Blacks.
Conor Murray to start with Ben Youngs on the bench and Greig Laidlaw as a potential mid-week captain. Rhys Webb slightly too inconsistent for me.
Owen Farrell is the best no. 10 in the northern hemisphere and I think that’s where he should start. It’s his natural position, he’s the strongest defensive option (Ford and Sexton would be targeted) and his game-management won Saracens the double last year. Sexton obviously goes as back-up. George Ford is too defensively vulnerable against the All Blacks, and it seems pointless to take him as a reserve, so I would bring in Dan Biggar, who is a big-game player and a real leader on the pitch.
With Farrell also an option at inside centre, that leaves three spots: one at inside and two at outside. Robbie Henshaw was the standout inside centre in the Six Nations, and his physicality will be needed against a ferocious Kiwi defence. With Farrell at 10, I would start him at 12. Jonathan Davies, who defied the critics when picked over O’Driscoll for the final test in 2013, returned to form in the Six Nations. He’s been trapped in an underperforming Welsh backline, but remains one of the best in the world in his position. Jonathan Joseph, after being challenged by Ben Te’o in England colours, returned to his best against Scotland, and will compete with Davies and Henshaw to start. Elliot Daly also deserves a place as perhaps the best under-25 player in the Six Nations. A utility back of his quality is a great addition to any Lions squad.
In this department, the Lions are blessed with several versatile wing-fullbacks capable of scoring against any defence in the world. Stuart Hogg, Six Nations Player of the Tournament, is the most obvious pick. Liam Williams has been consistently good for Wales despite the lack of creativity inside him, and can play wing or fullback, as can Anthony Watson. George North returned to form this year, and any Lions fan will remember the breath-taking pace and power he displayed in 2013, so he tours. Sean Maitland, a Kiwi expat and 2013 Lion, has excellent vision and off-loading ability and was a key part of Scotland’s success this year, so I think he deserves a shot. The final pick is a difficult one, but I’m going to opt for Jack Nowell, who has been a star in Exeter’s rise over the years and has shown his carrying power and defensive qualities in an England shirt. Daly, as mentioned above, can cover wing and full back.
Within the squad I have picked, Warburton, Wyn Jones, Best, Farrell and even Connor Murray have all been suggested as potential captains. Personally, I think Warburton and Wyn Jones, having both captained the side in 2013 and worked under Gatland with Wales, are the main contenders. Both are equally capable, but I would go for Sam Warburton. He is certain to start if fit and, after a break from captaining Wales, is ready to reassume the role and lead the Lions to victory.