Andy Farrell is essential to the Lions chances in New Zealand this summer.

Andy Farrell as the Lions Defence Coach in Australia in 2013.
Andy Farrell as the Lions Defence Coach in Australia in 2013.

After England’s terrible performances in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Andy Farrell, then serving as England’s defence coach, was sacked along with the rest of the coaching team: Head Coach Stuart Lancaster, Forwards Coach Graham Rowntree, and Backs Coach Mike Catt. England’s Defence had been pretty strong during Farrell’s tenure and therefore it was no surprise to see him snapped up as a consultant for Munster Rugby soon after his sacking, and for him to then progress to working as Ireland’s Defence Coach following the 2016 Six Nations Championship (which was the earliest point at which his contract would allow him to work for another international side).

Following his taking the role with Ireland, Farrell has continued his strong defensive work, helping Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt to mastermind victories over the All Blacks in Chicago, and last week beating Australia. Along with his achievements whilst coaching England, and his previous achievements with Saracens and on the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, Farrell should be the first person who Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland ensures is on the plane to New Zealand in the Summer — his place is arguably as important (or perhaps even more important) than any of the players who are in the running for this summer’s tour.

The reason for this is Farrell’s relationship with the players. One of the difficulties with the Lions is building a rapport and trust between players and coaching staff and building partnerships between players in such a short space of time. This was one of the reasons why Warren Gatland, who was successful as a coach on the last tour and was also successful as the Forwards Coach on the 2009 tour to Australia, was retained as Head Coach this time around. Farrell offers similar benefits, because he worked on the 2013 tour, but also because he has experience with both the England and Ireland players whom, given the form of their respective sides, look set to make up the bulk of the touring side this summer.

Nowhere will Farrell’s influence be more important than in the backs, where his defensive coaching and relationship with the players will be hugely important. Conor Murray, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, and Jonny Sexton all toured with the Lions in 2013 and were coached by Farrell, I would expect all four of these players to tour this time around. If they retain their current form then I would expect Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, George Ford, and Jonny May to also be on the plane to New Zealand — all of these players have also been coached by Farrell at a recent point in their careers. Ford, Joseph, and May were in the England squad at the 2015 World Cup, whilst Henshaw and Ringrose are in the current Ireland team.

Whilst the partnerships built between players are hugely important on a Lions Tour, the partnerships between players and coaches are equally important.

With this in mind, Andy Farrell is the first person that Warren Gatland should be calling when he begins to put his coaching team together next week.

Why on earth has Chris Froome not been nominated for Sports Personality of the Year?

Pete Goding via Press Association Images File Photo: Team Sky 2014 Tour de France Team Announcement Chris Froome Sky Procycling team wins the 100th Tour de France i
Tour de France winner, Chris Froome. 

Yesterday evening the shortlist (arguably a longlist given that it contained sixteen names) was announced for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award, with the winner due to be announced on 18 December.

When I saw the shortlist, to my consternation, cyclist Chris Froome had not been nominated. In 2016, Froome won his third Tour de France title, in the process becoming the first athlete to legitimately retain the title since Spaniard Miguel Indurain in 1995 (obviously I’m not including Lance Armstrong whose results have now been expunged from the record books). Given that Le Tour is considering amongst the most demanding events in the sporting calendar, to have retained it, particularly in the swashbuckling style that Froome did, is a phenomenal achievement. Prior to his win in the Tour he won the Criterium du Dauphine Libere (also considered one of the foremost road races in the world) for the second year running, and later in the year he finished second in another Grand Tour, this time the Vuelta a Espana. In addition, he managed a Bronze medal in the Time Trial at the Rio Olympics. Given the scale of these achievements you could make a case for Froome as the winner of the award, but in fact he hasn’t even made the shortlist.

Now, it’s understandable that in Olympic years the SPOTY shortlist is pretty focused on those who have won gold medals at the Olympic Games, but this year they increased the size of the shortlist to sixteen in order to factor that in. One of those nominees is Leicester and England striker Jamie Vardy who is one of two footballers on the list, the other being Welshman Gareth Bale. Bale’s nomination is understandable given his key role in Wales’ fairytale role to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, with Wales being knocked out by eventual winners Portugal, however Vardy’s is less so. Although his Leicester side won the Premier League, with Vardy scoring 24 goals in the process, it is debatable whether this should qualify him for inclusion. Vardy’s big achievement was equally the record for having scored in the most consecutive Premier League games. This was an impressive feat but, it happened in 2015, meaning that it would have made more sense had he been nominated last year. As for his contributions later in the year, he wasn’t even voted as the best player in his club side, with that accolade going to Riyadh Mahrez, and the less said about his contributions to England’s terrible Euro 2016 campaign the better. Instead, Froome should have been nominated.

More than anything else, his not being nominated is perhaps a symptom of the latent distrust for road cycling which still exists following the Lance Armstrong scandal, and which has reared its ugly head again his year with the revelations about Bradley Wiggins’ use of controversial Therapeutic Use Exemptions. However, Wiggins has not actually been found to have done anything wrong, and Froome has been a trailblazer for clean cycling, and so the way in which the sport is somewhat tainted shouldn’t count against him given his phenomenal achievements.

Spare a thought as well for rugby player Maro Itoje who also failed to be nomination for the award. This year was the first season that Itoje featured in the England side, and the twenty-two year old ended it by being nominated for the World Player of the Year Award. Last season, Itoje didn’t lose a single match in which he started for club and country, and typically he was an important part of those wins, playing a significant role as England won a Six Nations Grand Slam and whitewashed Australia away from home. His omission is also extremely unlucky, but perhaps of it being an Olympic year more than anything else.

Of those selected it would unsurprising if Andy Murray retained the award having won Wimbledon, an Olympic Gold, and finished the year as the world number one. However, despite Murray’s undoubted achievements, it would be a bit of a shame if the same athlete won the award in two consecutive years. For this reason, Mo Farah, Sophie Christiansen, Max Whitlock, and Jason Kenny should all be considered deserved winners — as should Froome, even though he wasn’t even nominated.

Under Eddie Jones England could once again reach the heights of 2003.

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Eddie Jones is in the process of turning the England team into world beaters. 

 

On Saturday, the England rugby team continued their perfect record under coach Eddie Jones with a 58–15 victory over Fiji at Twickenham. If we include the thrashing of Uruguay at the end of the 2015 World Cup (Stuart Lancaster’s last match in charge of the side), England’s winning streak now stands at twelve matches, and in that time they have won a Six Nations Grand Slam, defeated Australia three times, and beaten South Africa for the first time in ten years.

These exploits have led to the team already being considered one of the favourites to win the 2019 World Cup in Japan, and emulating the England team which became world champions thirteen years ago today. There are a lot of similarities between the side that became world champions thirteen years ago, and the team which Eddie Jones is in the process of sculpting at this moment.

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This team looks as though it could emulate England’s 2003 World Cup winners. 

 

Similarly to the current team which suffered heartbreak in crashing out of the 2015 world cup on home soil having failed to advance beyond the group stage, the 2003 squad suffered a similar failure. In the 1999 World Cup, the England side which contained many of the players who would go on to become world champions were demolished by South Africa in the quarter finals. This loss bred a desire and focus in the side which hadn’t been quite so evident before, and all the evidence suggests that the 2015 debacle has had a similar effect on the current side.

In addition, the current side has a similarly phenomenal depth of talent as the 2003 side had. In 2003, head coach Clive Woodward was able to leave players of the quality of Graham Rowntree, Simon Shaw, Austin Healey, and James Simpson-Daniel out of his final 30-man world cup squad without this impacting upon quality, such was the depth of talent from which he could pick. Eddie Jones has the similar luxury of a deep talent pool today. Prior to the ongoing Autumn Internationals, several key first team players had been ruled out of action. Despite missing James Haskell, Maro Itoje, Jack Clifford, Manu Tuilagi, Jack Nowell, and Anthony Watson among others, England have still managed to field a side that would be considered the envy of many other nations. Even with all the injuries players of the quality of Danny Cipriani, Dan Robson, Joe Simpson, Christian Wade, Matt Kvesic, Matt Symons, Paul Hill, and Jackson Wray don’t make the cut. For Eddie Jones, such a selection dilemma is a brilliant luxury to have.

All the signs suggest that this England side is destined for greatness, and for that a lot of credit should go to Eddie Jones who has got the team playing the an exciting and dynamic fashion that they have got close to in the recent past. However, some credit should also be reserved for his predecessors in the role, particularly Stuart Lancaster who unceremoniously left the role of head coach following the World Cup. The nucleus of the current side were capped for the first time under Lancaster, and he should be given some much deserved credit for their rise to prominence. It was Lancaster who placed faith in Owen Farrell and capped him as a twenty year old in the 2012 Six Nations Championship, Farrell now has 45 caps and has been twice nominated for the IRB World Player of the Year, meaning that he is widely considered one of the best in the world in his current position. Equally, the likes of Joe Launchbury, George Ford, George Kruis, Mako and Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Alex Goode, and Jack Nowell, all first established themselves under Lancaster, and it was in Lancaster’s team that they properly learned the ways of international rugby. Lancaster is often denigrated for his time as England coach, but in fact he achieved a lot, it was simply a case of him lacking the experience to take England to that next level, which is what Eddie Jones has done. Equally, the likes of Ben Youngs, Danny Care, James Haskell, new captain Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, and Dan Cole, first established themselves under Martin Johnson, and with these players now comprising the nucleus of such a good team, he should also take some credit for their rise. As I said previously it was simply that someone like Eddie Jones was required to move England into the world class bracket, and put them in with a chance of properly competing for the World Cup in 2019.

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Stuart Lancaster deserves credit for blooding most of England’s star players. 

Overall, this England team is one that could be remembered as one of the best England teams in history. With such a great talent pool to pick from, and a brilliant coaching team of Jones along with Steve Borthwick, Neal Hatley, and Paul Gustard, it is a team that is going to go far.

It is rare for an England supporter in any sport to begin watching a match expecting to win, but the quality of this England team is such, that that is exactly what every England supporter will be feeling when they tune into Saturday’s match against Argentina.

It’s right to wag the finger at Russia, but ‘clean’ countries must also accept their own failings in the war against doping.

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American swimmer Lilly King reacts to Yulia Efimova’s semi-final victory. 

Given what has been uncovered about the state-sponsored doping programme run by Russia, it is no surprise that the faith of spectators in sportsmen and women is waning. However, although Russia have clearly broken the rules and deserve more punishment than they have received, other countries also need to stand up and accept their share of the responsibility for the doping issues which are permeating elite sport.

In terms of Russia, it is a travesty that any of their Olympic team is allowed to compete given the evidence against them. Although there will be a number of clean Russian athletes, the sheer fact that Russia was undertaking state-sponsored doping on such a large scale means that the whole team should have been banned. To have done otherwise is a huge cop-out on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC have been put to shame by the Paralympics who, on Sunday, banned the entire Russian team from competing in this year’s Paralympic games.

But whilst it is right to throw the book at Russia, other countries (the so-called ‘clean’ countries) should not make the mistake of thinking that this is all that needs to be done. If countries such as the US and UK want to be seen as leaders in the fight against doping, then they should also be throwing the book at any of their athletes who are found to have violated doping regulations.

Take the case of British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead for example. Between 20 August 2015 and 9 June 2016 Armitstead missed three drugs tests. The regulations state that an athlete who misses three drugs tests within a twelve month period is liable to be banned from competing for up to four years. The response to the possibility of Armitstead potentially facing a lengthy ban was that British authorities threw huge amounts of money at the problem, hiring expensive lawyers in order to fight any potential ban. Lo and behold, Armitstead got off scot-free. Many fans also reacted as if the whole thing was nothing but a witch hunt. However, former Olympic rowing champion Zac Purchase had it right when he tweeted: “Imagine what we would be saying if she was Russian.” The answer to this is simple. If Armitstead was a Russian who had missed three drugs tests then there would have been absolute horror that she was allowed to compete in Sunday’s road race, irrespective of the fact that she has never tested positive. I am sure that Armitstead is a clean athlete, however she clearly broke the rules and so should face the consequences. Given the reaction of the British Olympic Association to Russia not being totally excluded from the games, it was rank hypocrisy that they then acted in this way when it was one of their own athletes who had violated doping regulations. If other countries want to be seen as credible on the issue of doping, then they have to throw the book at their own athletes just the same as with Russia. Unfortunate as it is, the only way to ensure clean sport is to make examples of those who transgress.

There is also the problem of what to do with individuals who have previously been caught for a doping offence but now profess to being clean. In the spirit of rehabilitation it seems fair that those who have tested positive once but are now clean are allowed to compete. For instance, Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde who served a two year ban after being caught up in the Operacion Puerto doping case. Valverde has now been back in competition for four years and hasn’t been linked to doping in any way.

However, the same cannot be said for those who are admitted back into competition following a failed test and are then subsequently caught for a doping offence once again. This brings us to the cases of Yulia Efimova and Justin Gatlin. Efimova failed a test in 2014 for the banned steroid DHEA, serving a nine month ban. A year after her return to competition she then tested positive once again, this time for meldonium (the same substance which recently earned Maria Sharapova a two-year ban from competitive tennis). I’m all for giving someone another chance, but for them to then test positive again, that should be the end of it. There is no way that Efimova should have been allowed to swim at the Olympic games.

The same can be said of Justin Gatlin. The American sprinter has also tested positive twice: first he was banned for two years in 2001 after testing positive for amphetamines; and then in 2006 he was banned for eight years (later reduced to just four) after testing positive for a form of testosterone. Gatlin is now back competing and is running the fastest times of his career, meaning that he has a very real chance of winning a medal in the 100m in Rio. The American team were strongly in favour of a mooted ban for any Russian athletes who had tested positive in the past, so why on earth are they allowing Gatlin to compete? If the United States want to be seen as credible on anti-doping then they should have given Gatlin a lifetime ban after his second positive test, and he should not have been selected for this Olympic Games as a result. To be fair to most of the other athletes it seems that they would be in favour of this sort of action, American swimming gold medalist Lilly King said on Wednesday that she felt athletes previously banned for drug offences, such as Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, should be kicked off the American team. The fact that they haven’t been is rank hypocrisy, and suggests that the United States aren’t truly serious about confronting the scourge of doping in sport.

One of the biggest issues when it comes to preventing doping is the length of bans handed out to those who violate the rules. Efimova, who has tested positive twice, has served cumulative bans of only around one year. The same is true of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang who tested positive for banned stimulant trimetazidine in 2014, he was banned for just three months. If sporting bodies want to win the battle against doping then the only option is to make an example of those who break the rules. For those found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs then a four year ban (a full Olympic cycle) should be the bare minimum. For an athlete that has previously served a ban, then it is fair to allow them back to compete once again. But if they then have the temerity to break the rules again, a lifetime ban is the only option.

Ultimately, if countries that pride themselves upon being seen as ‘clean’ competitors want to eradicate the scourge of doping then they must throw the book at anyone who transgresses, whatever country they happen to represent. In the case of missed drugs tests it is all very well saying that it was simply an error, but to make that error three times is poor and it should be met with a ban, the same as it would be if the violator was Russian. Likewise, it is wrong for the United States to welcome back the likes of Justin Gatlin into the Olympic team. He has been caught for doping offences twice, and to allow him back into the team sets a terrible example for young athletes as well as being a huge step back for the fight against doping in sport.

Who could replace Nick Compton for England?

 I am a big fan of Nick Compton as a cricketer. His grinding out of runs is not always the prettiest viewing but has often brought success nonetheless. However, the numbers don’t lie and a career test match batting average of 30.20, coupled with an average of just 25.36 since his recall to the side in December 2015, mean that he has reason to fear for his place.

Compton needs to score runs in the Third test against Sri Lanka, which begins of Thursday at Lord’s. All Compton really needs is one big innings in order to regain his confidence and secure his place in the side, at least until the end of the English summer. I for one hope that he manages to do this. However if Compton fails to score big once again, there can be little argument against England looking elsewhere for someone to fill the number three slot in the batting order. Here is a look at the contenders to replace Compton, and be the next player to attempt to fill the current problem position in England’s batting lineup:

Tom Westley.

Tom Westley (Getty Images).

If you take a cursory glance at Essex batsman Tom Westley batting statistics, then he may not seem set to be England’s next test match number three. A First Class batting average of 35.14 is hardly anything to write home about. However, this season Westley has already scored 589 runs at an average of 58.90 in the County Championship. In addition, Westley has a knack of scoring big runs against strong bowling attacks. This season he made 108 in a match against the touring Sri Lankans. Whilst last season he managed 144 against the touring Australians. Therefore, he clearly has the ability to face the class of bowling that he would be up against at test level. All the signs suggest the Westley has excellent temperament, whilst his technique looks strong. Surely he must be in the conversation in England’s selection meetings?

Scott Borthwick.

Scott Borthwick. (Photo: PA).

Durham all-rounder Borthwick has already played test match cricket for England. In the final test of the 2013–14 Ashes whitewash in Sydney, Borthwick managed scores of 1 and 3 with the bat, whilst also taking four wickets over the course of the match. Borthwick has not been selected for the test side since then but, he has significantly improved his game in the meantime. Borthwick has a career batting average of 38.46, but this season he has already scored 574 runs at an average of 82.00. He is also a handy legbreak bowler. This season he has managed to take ten wickets at an average of 36.40. This would mean that in an England side he would take the pressure off Moeen Ali as another spin bowler, whilst also allowing England to nearly always select three genuine fast bowlers. Since he last played for England, Borthwick has improved immeasurably as a player, developing from a half-decent all-rounder into a genuinely top class batsman. He surely has to be given a chance in the England side at some point?

Sam Robson.

Sam Robson. (Photo: PA)

Australian-born Sam Robson featured in all seven of England’s home test matches in the summer of 2014, managing 336 runs at an average of 30.54 in contests against Sri Lanka and India. This was not enough to retain his place in the side and the following season, the selectors dispensed with Robson in favour of Adam Lyth. After a disappointing season last year with Robson only managing 891 runs in the County Championship, Robson knuckled down over the winter. This season he has been in a rich vein of form for Middlesex, scoring 636 County Championship runs at an average 79.50, with three hundreds. With Robson’s technically excellent defence, he clearly has the technique for test cricket, and having scored a hundred in his second test match against Sri Lanka, we know that he is capable of scoring runs in the test match arena. However, it remains to be seen whether Robson has the ability to consistently prosper in test matches, against the very best bowlers in the world. Nonetheless, on the basis of sheer weight of runs, Robson surely deserves consideration.

Mark Stoneman.

Mark Stoneman (Getty Images).

Stoneman doesn’t tend to be talked about as a potential England prospect in the same way that pundits talk about Westley, Borthwick, and Robson. Despite this, Stoneman batting statistics are impressive and, his form of late has been excellent. In this season’s County Championship, Stoneman has compiled 444 runs opening the batting for Durham, at an average of 55.50. On this basis, Stoneman is clearly another who should be considered for a role in the England side.

Daniel Bell-Drummond.

Daniel Bell-Drummond (Adam Davy/Empics).

Kent batsman Daniel Bell-Drummond is another excellent batsman, who at just 22 years of age, has the potential to be a long-term fixture in the England test match side. We perhaps first got a true glimpse of Bell-Drummond’s prodigious talent in Kent’s match against the touring Australians in June 2015. Bell-Drummond shrugged off a first innings duck to make a 92-ball hundred in the second innings, against a bowling attack featuring Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson, and Peter Siddle. Since then, Bell-Drummond has kicked on and this season he has made 563 County Championship runs for Kent at an average of 93.83. Former Kent Captain Rob Key once declared that Bell-Drummond possessed the talent to play one hundred test matches for England, and on this evidence it is not hard to see why.

Gary Ballance.

Gary Ballance (Photo: PA).

Gary Ballance has already played fifteen test matches for England, but was dropped after the second test of last years Ashes series, following disappointing batting returns. This followed scrutiny regarding Ballance’s movement deep into his crease when batting, a movement which had left arm bowlers licking their lips. However, it must be remembered that Ballance still averages 47.76 at test level, having scored over one thousand runs in his test matches to date. Despite this, he has failed to correct the flaw in his technique that caused him so much trouble last summer. Couple this with his slim returns for Yorkshire this season, Ballance has scored 226 County Championship runs at an average of just 22.60, and an England turn does not look to be on the cards. Ballance has run scoring pedigree at test level, but given his technical flaws it seems somewhat unlikely that he would be able to replicate this if picked again.

Ian Bell.

Ian Bell (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images).

The enigma of Ian Bell: 118 Test caps, scoring 7727 runs at an average of 42.69, on paper this looks good but for a player which such prodigious talent as Bell it is disappointing. When Bell was first selected for England he was earmarked as a future legend. However, he never seemed able to kick on and really prove to everyone how well he could bat. Bell was dropped for December’s South Africa tour after a disappointing test series against Pakistan in November. He has subsequently not been selected for the current series against Sri Lanka. Despite this, Bell has plugged away, having scored 307 County Championship runs for Warwickshire this season, at an average of 51.16. So he is scoring runs. However, although Bell has always been once of the most enjoyable English batsman to watch, thanks to his near-perfect technique, my feeling is that perhaps it is time to move on. Bell has had a lot of chances to cement his place in the England side and perhaps it is now time to give an exciting young player the chance to do the same.

Verdict.

In my opinion, England should be choosing between Tom Westley and Scott Borthwick when selecting the next batsman to be given a chance in the test side. Through sheer weight of runs, Borthwick demands to be given a chance. Whilst although Westley has scored fewer runs, in innings against touring Sri Lankan and Australia sides, he has shown that he can rise to the big occasion and score runs against the best bowling attacks in the world. These are both qualities which are absolutely integral to a successful career in test match cricket.

I also feel that Daniel Bell-Drummond is worth consideration. But with him being so young, I would personally like to see him finish the season strongly for Kent before there is any talk of test match honours.

I hope that Compton rises to the occasion in the Lord’s test starting on Thursday and makes a hundred to cement his place in the side for the rest of the English summer. However, if he fails then Tom Westley and Scott Borthwick will be waiting in the wings and both should be considered by the England selectors.

The Lions Tour 2017: Runners and Riders.

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.

The Captain:

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.

Forwards:

Props:

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.

Hookers:

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.

Second Row:

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.

Flankers:

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.

Number Eight:

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.

Backs:

Scrum-Half:

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.

Fly-half:

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.

Centres:

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.

Wingers:

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.

Fullback:

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.

Professional Boxers at the Olympics: A Terrible Idea.

Yesterday the International Boxing Assocation (AIBA) announced that they had voted in favour of allowing professional boxers to compete in this year’s Rio Olympics. The AIBA will make 26 places available at a qualifying event set to take place next year in Venezuela.

The move has been welcomed by some professional boxers, most notably Amir Khan who has mooted the possibility of representing Pakistan in Rio. However, on the whole the move has been criticised by boxers, with Carl Frampton, David Haye, and Ricky Hatton all reacting negatively to the decision, and rightly so.

It is not that the move is especially dangerous, as has been suggested by some. In short four round bouts, wearing softer amateur gloves, the move is unlikely to be anymore danger than is already present in boxing. Indeed, it has been suggested by the likes of Carl Froch and Mike Tyson that it would be no surprise to see the best amateurs beat professionals that take part in the competition.

The issue with this decision is that it harms the Olympics. The tradition of the Olympics has been one of the Olympics being the most prestigious event that the athletes taking part have been able to win at this point in their careers. For track and field athletes, swimmers, track cyclists, and rowers this is absolutely the case. Although there are clearly football tournaments which players would consider more prestigious, at least steps have been taken which limit the number of players in each squad who are over the age of 23 to just three. However, with boxing there is little chance that professionals who have already become world champion at professional level will consider an Olympic medal as being prestigious. There is a similar problem with the inclusion of golf in the Olympic Games. It seems exceedingly unlikely that golfers will consider the Olympic title to be on a par with or a higher honour than The Open, The Masters, and The Ryder Cup. For these reasons, golf should also not have been given a place in the Olympic Games. In the London 2012 Olympic Games, Anthony Joshua won the Heavyweight Gold Medal. Joshua has subsequently become IBF professional champion. If Joshua were to take part in this year’s Olympics (which is rather unlikely), and were to defend his title, then it seems unlikely that the gold medal would mean as much to him as the one he won in 2012. This would be in contrast to the amateur boxers who have been training for four years for the chance to compete in the Olympics and will regard it as the highlight of their careers so far. For these athletes winning an Olympic medal will be a pinnacle in their careers and will mean what winning an Olympic medal should mean.

Ultimately, this decision by the AIBA undermines the integrity of the Olympics. The Olympics is supposed to be the pinnacle of the sports which are included in the games, and this decision threatens this. Therefore, the AIBA should reverse their decision before it is too late. Failing this, the IOC should get involved and stop this terrible idea from progressing any further.