A Last-Minute Lions Squad Selection

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.

Props

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.

Hooker

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.

Second Row

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.

Back Row 

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.

Scrum Half  

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.

Fly Half

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.

Centre

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.

Back three 

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.

Captain

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.

In defence of Wenger

The cacophony of voices calling for the removal of Arsène Wenger, after 20 seasons at the helm of Arsenal, is louder now than ever before. The manner of the Champions League defeat to Bayern last week was embarrassing, but the European complaints of Claude & co. on ArsenalFanTV are unfounded – what else can they expect against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich? Fourth in the league and a last-16 exit from Europe have become synonymous with the complaints of the ‘WengerOut’ campaign, but Arsenal fans should expect nothing more. In modern football success is ultimately dictated by money. It is a frustrating argument given Arsenal fans pay the most in the League for their season tickets. Many will retort: ‘but if Leicester can win the League…’! Unfortunately, though, it is reality. For the Arsenal board, what Wenger brings is consistency in return for their investment – Arsenal have not finished outside the top four in his time as manager, a feat no other club has achieved. Arsenal fans are entitled to want more. But sacking Wenger by no means guarantees this. Look at Manchester United. The post-Ferguson era has been remarkably unsuccessful for them. 3 seasons, 3 managers and £350 million later and they lie 6th in the League. Wenger certainly has questions to answer – the post-Christmas capitulation is becoming far too regular an occurrence. Sacking him, though, would be the Brexit of the footballing world: a shift from stability to uncertainty, a leap of faith with only the dreaded Europa League as a safety net.

England edge past Wales in colossal Cardiff encounter

England vs Wales. The rose vs the daffodil. Episode 130 of a rugby boxset offering all the tension, twists and trauma of a Netflix creation. Coming into the game, the two sides were arguably further apart than they have been for a decade. England, with their new coach and new approach, unbeaten in fifteen matches; Wales, drawing criticism for their one-dimensionality, undoubtedly falling behind in the race for hemispheric hegemony. Yet the hype surrounding it seemed to rival previous matches which have, on paper, carried much greater significance. The fervour, it turned out, was justified.

From the off, the game was fast and open; the Six Nations this year appears to be returning to its former glory, after a series of turgid and attritional tournaments. England gained the initial momentum, dominating possession and territory in the first fifteen minutes, but what they were met with was a Welsh wall – the lesser-known cousin of Trump’s mythical construction, built not by Mexicans but by Moriarty, Tipuric and Owens. Ultimately though, it was not impenetrable, with Youngs squirming over for the first try of the game as the phase count hit the quarter of a century mark.

At this point, beer-holding, daffodil-wearing fans around the Principality Stadium feared a repeat of the 2016 game, when England effectively won the game with a strong first-half display. A Liam Williams break two minutes later quickly alleviated these fears, marking the start of a crucial 20 minutes during which momentum rested firmly on the side of the Welsh. Whilst more drama was to come, the post-match analysis of both sides may well highlight this as the period when the game was won and lost. Although Wales eventually came away with a try shortly before half-time, the result of a perfectly executed set piece move which put Liam Williams under the posts, critics will argue that seven points was a meagre return after dominating the second quarter of the game. For England, their ‘whatever you can do we can do better’ attitude to defence, embodied by the imperious Launchbury, kept them in the game and showed the collective spirit which left them unbeaten in 2016.

After half-time the game continued at breakneck speed, with both defences ferociously physical. England, after escaping another 20-plus phase Welsh attack with only a Halfpenny penalty to cancel out Farrell’s earlier three points, began to assert their authority on the game. They were fuelled by powerful carries from George and Haskell, both of whom laid down strong claims for a starting place through their impact off the bench. On 64 minutes, with England pressing the Welsh line, a Youngs pass destined for Brown and an English try fell into the hands of Biggar, whose quick-thinking interception was the pinnacle of a performance certain to silence his critics.

England, though, continued to build momentum and a 70th minute penalty moved them to within two points. Ben Teo’o, another effective substitute, then made a break which forced Wales into more desperate defence, spurred on by a now hysterical Cardiff crowd. In the end, the relentless attacks of England’s ball-carriers proved too much for tired Welsh minds and bodies: a panicked clearance kick and non-existent chase gave Elliot Daly, whose exploits marked his maturity and promise, space to dive over in the corner.

The image at the final-whistle of Maro Itoje thumping his chest with raw passion, as Alun-Wyn Jones stood doubled-over and dejected behind him, told the story that matters: a sixteenth consecutive victory for England, an agonising defeat for Wales. Maybe it also symbolised the diverging paths of the neighbouring rugby nations. But, overall, England’s 21-16 win on Saturday should be remembered mostly as an incredible sporting spectacle; a game of remarkable skill, spirit, and physical sacrifice which will have Six Nations fans everywhere thirsty for more.