With the first match of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour just over one year away, I take a look at the players (and coaching staff) in pole position to board the plane to New Zealand.
The Head Coach:
In 2013, Wales Head Coach Warren Gatland led the Lions to Australia. With a coaching team including Rob Howley, and then England coaching staff Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, Gatland led the Lions to a 2–1 series victory. Their first test series victory since 1997.
This time around, Warren Gatland appears once again to be in pole position to be appointed as Head Coach for the Lions Tour to New Zealand. It is rare for a coach to lead multiple Lions tour but despite this, Gatland seems the only credible candidate to lead the tour to New Zealand. For a time, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt looked likely, but Ireland’s mediocre performances in the 2016 RBS Six Nations Championship may have damaged his chances. England coach Eddie Jones has ruled himself out of coaching the Lions. Vern Cotter has overseen radical improvement in the performances of the Scottish national side but still feels like a long-shot. Overall, Warren Gatland seems exceedingly likely to be named as the head coach for a second consecutive Lions tour.
Prediction: Warren Gatland.
In 2013, Sam Warburton became the youngest ever captain of the British and Irish Lions at the age of just 24. Warburton captained the side in the first and second test before injury forced him to miss the deciding fixture. For this final match his Wales teammate Alun Wyn Jones took over the captaincy. The smart money would be on one of these two men to be named the captain this time around. Despite this, the name of Dylan Hartley should also be mentioned after he led England impressively in their Grand Slam Six Nations campaign. It should also be noted that Hartley plays in a less competitive position than both Warburton and Wyn Jones which, in theory at least, makes his place in the team more secure. In addition, Greig Laidlaw’s captaincy of Scotland has been increasingly impressive since he took over the job in 2011, this was particularly illustrated by his leadership in Scotland’s 2015 World Cup campaign. However, with so many options available to the Lions at scrum-half, there is no guarantee that Laidlaw will even be named in the final squad, let alone be named the captain. This brings us back to Warburton and Wyn Jones. Both players lead by example, and can be considered to be amongst the best in the world in their respective positions. But it is Wyn Jones who would be my choice. He would be assured of his place in the side and would lead from the front. He will be going on his third Lions tour, and he has experience in leading the Lions to a test series victory in that final match of the 2013 tour against Australia. It is a tough call but, for me, it has to be Alun Wyn Jones.
- Prediction: Alun Wyn Jones.
- In with a shot: Sam Warburton.
- Wildcard: Dylan Hartley.
In 2013, the Lions selected six props in their original touring party. I would expect them to select the same number this time around. The undoubted star of the last tour was Alex Corbisiero who was called up as a replacement for Cian Healy and starred in both test wins. Unfortunately, Corbisiero is taking a break from rugby after numerous injury problems and will be unavailable for selection.
As for the props who will be selected, the best tightheads on show in this years Six Nations were England’s Dan Cole, and Scotland’s WP Nel. Barring a significant loss of form, both these players will travel to New Zealand. I would also expect Mako Vunipola to be selected for his second Lions tour. While Mako may not start in the test matches, his impact from the bench is second to none and I would happily select him for this alone. As for the rest of the party, Welshman Samson Lee has a good chance of making the squad, as do Irishmen Cian Healy and Jack McGrath. In addition, the likes of Alasdair Dickinson, Kieran Brookes, Paul Hill, and Ellis Genge should not be rule out of contention.
- Prediction: Dan Cole, WP Nel, Mako Vunipola, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Samson Lee.
- In with a shot: Alasdair Dickinson, Kieran Brookes, Joe Marler.
- Wildcards: Paul Hill, Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler.
In 2013, the Lions originally selected Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs, and Richard Hibbard as hookers. Rory Best was then called up after Dylan Hartley’s suspension following his red card in the Premiership final.
Based on recent performances, Dylan Hartley is currently the outstanding hooker in the British Isles and their seems to be minimal competition for the starting jersey on the Lions tour. If the rapid progress of Jamie George continues then I would expect him to be the second-choice on next year’s tour. The third place would then be between Rory Best and Sean Cronin of Ireland, and Scott Baldwin of Wales.
- Prediction: Dylan Hartley, Jamie George, Scott Baldwin.
- In with a shot: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Ross Ford.
- Wildcards: Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie.
In 2013 the Lions took five second row players with Ian Evans, Richie Gray, Alun Wyn Jones, and Geoff Parling making the trip. Of these, only Alun Wyn Jones looks certain to make the trip. In the 2016 Six Nations Championship, the outstanding second row pairing was England’s George Kruis and Maro Itoje, and both should be as good as assured of their place on the plane. The advantage of Itoje, in particular, is that he is equally comfortable playing blindside flanker which would allow the Lions an extra lineout option in their forward pack. England are a team with significant depth in this position and the likes of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes should also both be seen as being in with a shot. Jonny Gray of Scotland has been one of the outstanding second rows in the Northern Hemisphere for several years ago with his outstanding defensive workrate and to see him make the squad would be expected. Brother Richie, who travelled in 2013, would be less sure of his place. But his athleticism could be ideal off the bench and therefore he should definitely be considered. Likewise, Irishmen Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, and Ultan Dillane have been impressive in recent seasons and should be considered.
- Prediction: Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Jonny Gray.
- In with a shot: Luke Charteris, Richie Gray, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson.
- Wildcards: Ultan Dillane, Matt Symons.
In 2013 the Lions selected five flankers: Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien, and Tom Croft. Barring injury, you would expect Warburton and O’Brien to both be selected this time around, given that they are have been the outstanding flankers in the Northern Hemisphere for some time. In addition, Gatland is a huge fan of Dan Lydiate which gives him a strong chance of making the trip. Fellow Welshman Justin Tipuric provides express pace which could be invaluable off the bench. During the Six Nations, England’s flankers were Chris Robshaw and James Haskell. While both put in strong performances in this campaign, they have been criticised in the past by Gatland and would appear to be fighting a losing battle when it comes to selection for this tour. Despite this, if the pair can replicate their performances of the past year in the run-up to the tour, they would be undeniably deserving of selection. New Zealand born John Hardie has been very impressive since being selected for the Scottish national side and must be considered a strong possibility for this tour. Not least because of his experience playing in New Zealand and his ability to play as a genuine openside flanker. CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony have both been impressive for Ireland is recent seasons and would also merit consideration for the tour.
- Predicted: Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien, John Hardie, Dan Lydiate, Chris Robshaw.
- In with a shot: Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander, James Haskell, Peter O’Mahony.
- Wildcards: Tom Croft, Sam Underhill.
Based on performances in the past few years, there seems to be only one candidate for the position of first choice number eight on this tour, and that is Taulupe Faletau. He is arguably second only to Kieran Read as the world’s best number eight (bear in mind I am not including David Pocock in this, as he is a flanker who happens to currently be playing number eight). In the 2016 Six Nations, the outstanding number eight was Billy Vunipola, and he should also make the trip. Expect competition from the experienced Jamie Heaslip, David Denton, and Nathan Hughes (who will by then have qualified for selection for England and the Lions). But it seems highly likely that it will be Faletau and Vunipola who travel to New Zealand.
- Prediction: Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola.
- In with a shot: Jamie Heaslip, David Denton, Nathan Hughes.
- Wildcard: Jack Clifford.
In 2013, the Lions selected Mike Phillips, Conor Murray, and Ben Youngs as the three scrum-halves for the tour. I would suggest that Murray and Youngs both have a good chance of also making the tour this time around. But, in my opinion, the outstanding scrum-half available for selection is, Rhys Webb. His pace and accuracy of passing, as well as his understanding with likely test starters Faletau and Dan Bigger will prove invaluable to the Lions side. England’s Danny Care is perhaps the most like-for-like replacement available for Webb, and for this reason he should also be considered. Whilst Conor Murray offers something different with his excellent tactical kicking game. I would also expect the likes of Greig Laidlaw and Ben Youngs to be considered, whilst the excellent form shown by Kieran Marmion for Connacht this season may yet catapult him into the Ireland team and a Lions call-up.
- Predicted: Rhys Webb, Conor Murray, Danny Care.
- In with a shot: Ben Youngs, Greig Laidlaw, Gareth Davies.
- Wildcards: Kieran Marmion, Dan Robson.
After this phenomenal performances in the 2015 World Cup, and his excellent showing following the tournament, the consensus seems to be that Dan Biggar is the presumptive test match fly-half for next year’s Lions tour. This is not a view which I am going to argue with. The much more interesting battle is for the second slot in the squad. Jonny Sexton started all three test matches in 2013, and although he has been somewhat disappointing this season, he showed signs of a return to his best form in the recent Pro12 playoffs. Owen Farrell, who also toured in 2013, has been the outstanding fly-half in the Aviva Premiership this season, and looks set to start for England in their upcoming test series against Australia. Both these players have strong cases for inclusion this time around. Despite his loss of form this season, we should not rule George Ford out of selection, whilst Finn Russell offers a completely different game from Biggar. Ultimately though, if Gatland is coach the expect Farrell to be selected, as Gatland is a big fan of his abrasive edge.
- Predicted: Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell.
- In with a shot: Jonny Sexton, George Ford.
- Wildcards: Finn Russell, Danny Cipriani.
In 2013 the Lions selected four centres in their original party, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Brian O’Driscoll, and Manu Tuilagi. It would be a surprise if they chose to take more this time, as any more than this makes the forging of partnerships rather difficult. The brilliance of Jamie Roberts, both in defence and attack, and the need of a powerful centre to take on Sonny Bill Williams, surely makes his selection a formality. The other outstanding inside-centre of the past couple of seasons has been Robbie Henshaw and I would expect him to also make the tour. That is not to say that there is not chance for the likes of Alex Dunbar and Henry Slade if they are able to establish themselves in their national sides and show strong form between now and the announcement of the squad. As for outside-centre, if Jonathan Davies is fit and firing then it would be a huge surprise if he wasn’t named in the squad. In terms of weight of tries then Jonathan Joseph should be considered whilst Elliot Daly is battling him for the England 13 shirt and both must be in with a shot. Scotland’s Mark Bennett should also be strongly considered, during the 2015 World Cup he looked like he was capable of becoming the new Brian O’Driscoll, and if he can regain this form he should have a good chance of making the tour. Duncan Taylor has also been quietly impressive in his appearances for Scotland, whilst if Manu Tuilagi can regain the form that saw him make the tour in 2013 then he must be in with a shot. Speaking for the new Brian O’Driscoll, 21 year-old Garry Ringrose has looked mightily impressive since breaking into the Leinster side and could be considered a long-shot for the squad.
- Predicted: Jamie Roberts, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies, Mark Bennett.
- In with a shot: Jonathan Joseph, Elliot Daly, Alex Dunbar, Henry Slade, Duncan Taylor, Manu Tuilagi.
- Wildcards: Ben Te’o, Garry Ringrose.
In 2013, the Lions selected four wingers: George North, Alex Cuthbert, Tommy Bowe, and Sean Maitland. At his best, George North remains the most destructive winger in the Northern Hemisphere and, barring injury, he is a certainty to make the tour. Tommy Bowe is currently suffering from a long-term injury but, if he can regain his fitness then he can be one of the best wingers in the world and I would select him in a heartbeat. Scotland’s Tommy Seymour has also proved himself to be a very impressive winger, whilst Anthony Watson has shown himself to be one of the most deadly finishers in the world. Both would make my squad. The eye for the try line shared by both Jack Nowell and Tim Visser would merit consideration. The same can be said of the creativity of Simon Zebo, the reliability of Dave Kearney, and the ability to create something out of nothing demonstrated on a regular basis by Jonny May and Christian Wade. But, North, Bowe, Watson, and Seymour are the most accomplished wings in the British Isles and consequently should be selected.
- Prediction: George North, Tommy Bowe, Tommy Seymour, Anthony Watson.
- In with a shot: Jack Nowell, Dave Kearney, Tim Visser, Jonny May.
- Wildcards: Christian Wade, Semesa Rokoduguni, Chris Ashton.
In 2013, the Lions selected Leigh Halfpenny, Rob Kearney, and Stuart Hogg as their three fullbacks for the tour. Leigh Halfpenny’s performances on tour earned him the Player of the Series Award. Despite this, Stuart Hogg has made significant progress in the last few seasons and he should be considered the presumptive starting fullback for the test series. Hogg is currently the best fullback in the Northern Hemisphere, closely followed by Liam Williams who has been superb for Wales in the absence of Leigh Halfpenny. Both Hogg and Williams are guaranteed a place in the touring squad. I would also select Halfpenny although I do not feel that he is a guaranteed starter any longer. With Dan Biggar in the side, Halfpenny’s goal kicking is no longer as important to the team as it was in 2013. Therefore, the Lions have the luxury of being able to pick one of two brilliant counter-attacking players: Hogg or Williams. I would potentially find a place for Halfpenny on the wing, but he would ultimately travel as a back-up player unless his form on the tour demanded test match selection. Rob Kearney is still an excellent player, but given the competition in his position he would just miss out on this occasion. Mike Brown in also a good player, but for reasons outlined in a previous story, he wouldn’t make the cut. I would also consider Alex Goode as being in with a shot, but ultimately another player who would just miss out.
- Predicted: Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny.
- In with a shot: Rob Kearney.
- Wildcard: Stuart Olding.
So there you go, at this moment these are the players who will be making the trip to New Zealand with the Lions next summer:
Forwards: Dylan Hartley, Jamie George, Scott Baldwin; Dan Cole, WP Nel, Samson Lee, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Mako Vunipola; Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Jonny Gray; Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien, John Hardie, Dan Lydiate, Chris Robshaw; Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola.
Backs: Rhys Webb, Conor Murray, Danny Care; Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell; Jamie Roberts, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies, Mark Bennett; George North, Tommy Seymour, Tommy Bowe, Anthony Watson; Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny.
I will revisit this following the conclusion of this year’s summer tours where others pay have put their hand’s up for selection.