On the 14th June 2017, we who run this blog (well, three out of the four of us) will jet off to New Zealand to watch the British & Irish Lions take on the best rugby team that the world has ever seen.
It will, of course, be nothing less than a daunting task, but this would have sounded like the grossest of understatements at the close of the 2015 World Cup. With England dumped out in the group stages of their own tournament and not a single Northern Hemisphere nation to be seen in the semi-finals, the distant Lions tour of 2017 seemed an irrelevance. Few could see how they might even compete.
In the intervening period, however, many players have given us reasons to be optimistic. England’s whitewash of Australia initiated a Northern Hemisphere resurgence that was eventually crowned by Ireland’s stunning victory in Chicago. A new wave of Irish players have announced themselves on the international stage, and they looks to bolster the Lions’ ranks alongside England’s apparently unbeatable machine.
Since this blog was set up largely in anticipation of our Lions tour, it seems appropriate to kick it off by identifying some of these players, and going over the reasons why the Men in Red might just have a shot in New Zealand.
By way of a disclaimer, this team is my personal selection after two rounds of the 2017 6 Nations championship. It is bound to change as we move through the tournament, and, indeed, the year.
15. Stuart Hogg
This seems to be one of the few selection calls in which there seems to be near-consensus. The youngest player on the victorious 2013 tour, Hogg looks set to be far more than mascot-bearer and third-choice fly-half this time around. His creativity, balance, and sheer speed have been as devastating throughout this year’s 6 Nations as they have been since he burst onto the international stage, and he currently looks bolted-on in the Lions’ 15 jersey.
14. Jack Nowell
While Nowell is a less popular choice than his countryman Anthony Watson for the Lions right-wing berth, I believe that the Exeter man remains criminally underrated at the highest level. His ability to slot in at outside-centre is evident in the creativity in his game, and he often looks comfortable coming off his wing to be a decision-maker in attack. This composure is allied with tremendous power and freakish defence and, as such, I believe him to currently be a more rounded player than Watson. Nowell’s form for Exeter before the international break was nothing short of sensational (his showing against Ulster ranks among the best wing performances I can recall) and I do not doubt that he could replicate this for the Lions if given the chance.
13. Jonathan Joseph
I don’t actually think there can be much debate here. The main risk to Joseph’s test spot appears to be the possibility of Robbie Henshaw moving to 13 to make room for Owen Farrell as a second-five-eighth, but, with his England team-mate looking nailed-on at fly-half, Joseph should get the nod. The precocious Garry Ringrose and Huw Jones will doubtless beg to differ but, for now, Joseph’s consistency, rock-solid defence, and eye for the outside break are enough to secure his starting spot.
12. Robbie Henshaw
Henshaw’s performance against the All Blacks in Chicago is almost evidence enough for his inclusion here. In that particular match he was almost like a fourth back row forward in the doggedness of his work-rate and defence, as he made 12 tackles and carried 10 times (the last of those, of course, taking him over for the decisive try). It was a performance that encapsulated how vital he has become for Ireland. Originally a full-back, however, Henshaw marries that grunt-work with superb raw speed and attacking nous and, for me, he is the most complete centre in the Northern Hemisphere.
11. Liam Williams
Again, Watson is unlucky not to be included here; Williams will need to maintain high levels of form throughout the 6 Nations to nail down this starting spot. For me, though, he just gets the nod due to his superb counter-attacking ability and the speed of his thinking. Williams was one of the few Welsh players to stand out during their ill-fated tour of New Zealand over the summer, and he will need to sustain this form to secure Lions selection.
10. Owen Farrell
There is very telling piece of footage from the dressing room after the Lions first tour match againt the Barbarians, in 2013 (see 0:29 here). In it, Paul O’Connell urges his side to develop the leadership qualities already being exhibited by 21-year-old Farrell, and four years on it is equally difficult to believe how young he still is. The heartbeat of England’s defence and attack, he would fulfill a similar role in this side.While the combination of an injury-free Johnny Sexton and Farrell as a 10/12 axis is simply mouthwatering to consider, Sexton’s chronic inability to stay fit leaves the Englishman free to claim the out-half jersey.
9. Conor Murray
Murray’s is one of the most secure positions in this side. Like Henshaw, he produced a career-defining performance in Chicago (see above), outplaying with apparent ease the All Blacks’ metronome of Aaron Smith. On that day, as for the previous few seasons, so much of Ireland’s play was built around Murray’s faultless tactical kicking and his razor-sharp eye for the snipe, but his defensive sweeping behind is also second-to-none. With Rhys Webb and Ben Youngs waiting in the wings, however, this is a position of tremendous strength for the Lions.
8. Billy Vunipola
While Big Billy is currently returning to injury after an lengthy layoff, I believe that he has already done enough to demonstrate his class and, provided his is fit, justify his Lions selection. England have unsurprisingly looked less potent without the guaranteed go-forward ball that Vunipola offers, and his destructive carrying will surely generate indispensible momentum for the Lions.
7. Justin Tipuric
Like the other back row positions in this side, the competition for selection at openside flanker is fierce. Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, Sam Warburton, and James Haskell are all superb options, but, with CJ Stander packing down on the other side of my scrum, I feel picking O’Brien or Haskell would leave the back row too bulky and narrow. Tipuric has ousted Warburton as Wales’ first-choice openside and, for me, his dynamism in the wider channels is second-to-none. This will be invaluable against an All Blacks triumvirate who play very wide and fast, making the 2013 tourist as crucial in defence as he will be in attack.
6. CJ Stander
That Stander has begun storing Man-of-the Match awards in his garage to save space tells you all that you need to know. Munster’s favourite adopted son never fails to make ground with his carries, and his defensive work-rate is also superb. Crucially, he is also a fairly reliable lineout jumper, which alleviates the pressure off his locks and should be crucial in New Zealand. Again, though, this is a highly competitive position. Stander has Haskell, Peter O’Mahony, and Chris Robshaw to see off, but at the moment he should be for the Lions as he is for Munster and Ireland: undroppable.
5. Jonny Gray
One of two Scottish players in this side, Gray is an expert in all of the key disciplines at lock: he is a composed lineout caller for both club and country, a fearless leader, and a man with a freakish work-rate. There was a point in November where Gray had not missed a tackle in 750 minutes of test rugby, making over 135 in that time. It goes without saying this is a mid-boggling statistic, and one which proves not only a huge engine but also superb technique. Having made 28 tackles in Scotland’s momentous defeat of Ireland (double the amount completed by his Lions competitor Devin Toner) you just cannot leave out Gray on current form.
4. Maro Itoje
At the moment, the thing that appears likeliest to thwart Itoje’s Lions hopes is his own versatility. Currently filling-in at blindside flanker due to England’s injury crisis, Itoje has fallen down the pecking order for some commentators’ selections at lock. This must be frustrating for the young man who, less than two months ago, was crowned World Rugby’s breakthrough player of the year after a season in which few questioned his status as the Lions’ premier lock. While Alun Wyn-Jones’ leadership and experience will clearly be invaluable on tour, I believe that he would be better used as a steadying influence off the bench, whiel Itoje’s lineout-stealing prowess and superb work at the breadown should be preferred from kick-off.
3. Tadhg Furlong
Nobody who watched Ireland’s return test against the All Blacks in Dublin forgets it: Furlong shrugging off Owen Franks and Brodie Retallick, palming away Retallick a second time, then hurling Kieran Read onto his back and continuing to bludgeon his way forwards. It was the kind of barnstorming carry that Leinster and Ireland fans have come to associate with Furlong, and his solid strummaging and huge defensive hits only complement this attribute further. With few other outstanding tightheads (Dan Cole’s form has been indifferent and WP Nel is only just returning from injury) Furlong looks set to be the Lions’ primary weapon in going after a possible All Black weakness: the scrum.
2. Rory Best (C)
This selection comes down to a toss-up between Best and Jamie George. The main reason for Hartley’s inclusion at hooker seems to be his leadership ability, but for me that is not enough alone to justify Lions selection. In fact, I doubt just how effective Hartley’s leadership would be, anyway; Paul O’Connell has spoken that prerequisite for Lions captaincy is the respect of the squad, and I am unsure whether Hartley would command this from non-English players. That said, Hartley’s set-piece reliability is a major assest, and Best will have to rectify a recent dip in the quality of his lineout throwing. But his work over the ball and his defensive work-rate make him a leader by example and, while George is a technically superb player in the tight and loose, Best’s claim to the captaincy acts as the crucial tie-breaker here.
1. Mako Vunipola
This is another key area of strength for the Lions: with Jack McGrath and 2013 tourist Cian Healy waiting in the wings, Warren Gatland has three top-class looseheads to call upon. McGrath is Vunipola’s main competitor, as his ever-solid scrummaging would offer the Lions backs a superb attacking platform. But Vunipola offers far more in the loose, and under Eddie Jones his scrummaging has improved enormously. Indeed, he was arguably the finest loosehead on the planet before his recent injury and, with his return now imminent, he should strenghten further his claim to the Lions’ number 1 jersey.
So, there you have it! The difficulty of this selection, and indeed the many variables you can see from commentators and fans around the world, is itself testament to the immense quality available to Gatland and his staff. Whether they can be made to gel in time is the key question, but the raw rugby ability is in abundance, and should worry Steve Hansen and his men. We can’t wait to see how this side will change as we move towards June, and which XV will eventually run out on a historic night in Auckland on 24th June.