Lions selection is set to be its hardest for a generation, but these ten are nailed for the 2017 tour of New Zealand.
- Tadhg Furlong
After a meteoric rise over the past 12 months, the rampaging tighthead has overtaken Dan Cole and probably WP Nel as the most likely starter against the All Blacks. His scrummaging technique is good, but it is what he can do in the loose that makes Furlong at the very least assured a place on the bench.
- Taulupe Faletau
Faletau has had an injury-infested season, but the tireless Welsh back-rower is a Warren Gatland stalwart. Faletau will probably miss out to cousin Billy Vunipola at No. 8, but he could line up on the Lions blindside. At the very least, he is going to tour as the reserve eighth-man.
- Ben Youngs
The scrum-half was excellent under Eddie Jones’ tutelage in 2016 and was one of England’s players of the autumn. The most quick-witted No. 9, Youngs is the half-back best placed to take New Zealand on at their own, high-tempo game.
- Conor Murray
Just ahead of the Englishman is Munster’s Conor Murray. One of the stars of Soldier Field in November, Murray epitomises Gatland’s pragmatic, ruthless approach. The Irishman can be a fierce defender and has the quickest delivery of the scrum-halves.
- Jonny Sexton
Another Gatland-type, in 2013 Sexton learnt the invaluable skill of how to direct a backline of players he has had limited time working with. George Ford may have more guile in attack, but Sexton’s defence and clear head set him apart.
- Stuart Hogg
The man leading Scotland’s renaissance is a cast-iron Lion. With due respect to Scotland’s improving team, just imagine what the full-back could do when provided a platform by a Lions pack and midfield. He is flexible enough to cover the back three, and in an emergency, fly-half.
- Billy Vunipola
There seems no reason why the Saracen won’t tour provided he makes a full recovery from the injury he sustained against Argentina. When not breaking through tackles, the No. 8 will occupy two of the Kiwi back row, creating space for others through his offloads.
- Maro Itoje
A certain Lions starter. Not only does he have a claim to be the Lions’ best lock, he could also make the squad as a flanker. He will be crucial against Sam Whitelock at the line-out, match Ardie Savea, Sam Cane or Matt Todd on the floor and compete with captain Kieran Read in the loose. The only question is: second row or back row?
- Owen Farrell
Goalkicking will be crucial, especially as this is one area where the Lions have a clear advantage over the world-class Kiwi out-half Bauden Barrett. Leigh Halfpenny is struggling to make the tour, and other than Greig Laidlaw and Dan Biggar, who are far down the half-back pecking order, Farrell is the only banker from the tee.
Equally comfortable at 10 or 12, Farrell’s defence and developing creativity guarantee him a place in the XV.
- Mako Vunipola
Vunipola senior is the most nailed on Lions player. A 2013 tourist, not only is he the world’s finest loosehead, but No. 1 is also a position of relative weakness for Gatland. Whichever way Gatland does his team sheet, Mako Vunipola is the first name on it.
Daniel Rey, Pundit Arena