There has been a great deal of debate over the composition of the Lions squad since the beginning of the season. However, the real litmus test for players was always going to be the Six Nations.
Sure, domestic and European rugby brings its own brand of intensity and passion, but international rugby is on another level. Be it the physical nature of the encounter between Wales and England, the pace of the Scotland’s running game, the tactical curve ball introduced by Italy in Twickenham, Ireland’s attention to detail, or the power of the French scrum, players are tested on every level during the Six Nations.
Consequently, very few players are guaranteed their place within a British and Irish Lions squad. Indeed, this season’s Six Nations has raised questions of some of home nations’ most established stars.
Ireland’s defeat to Scotland on the opening weekend of the Championship brought with it criticism of CJ Stander, Iain Henderson, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney. Likewise, Jonathan Davies suffered as a result of his misplaced kick to touch against England, while George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Bigger and Alun Wyn Jones had their credentials questioned following Wales’ loss in Murrayfield last weekend.
After a series of under-par performances and the malaise that engulfed England on Sunday, last season’s Grand Slam winning captain, Dylan Hartley, hasn’t escaped censure either. Nor have Jonathan Joseph, George Ford or Mike Brown.
This, therefore, creates some uncertainty over the possible participation of a number of star players in the Lions tour.
[tie_slide]1. Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
At the beginning of the season, Taulupe Faletau was regarded as a certainty to tour with the Lions in June. However, two separate medial knee ligament injuries has limited the amount of game time the number eight has enjoyed this season.
In addition, despite his return to fitness, the Bath number eight faces the difficult task of replacing Ross Moriarty from the back of the Welsh scrum during their two remaining Six Nations fixtures against Ireland and France.
Indeed, despite replacing the hard hitting Moriarty during Wales’ defeats against England and Scotland, Faletau failed to make enough of an impact to suggest that he will take the place of the Gloucester player in the coming weeks. Furthermore, given the form of CJ Stander in particular, Faletau could yet struggle to retain his place in Warren Gatland’s squad.
Nevertheless, Wales’ desperation could see Faletau accommodated somewhere in the Welsh back row against either Ireland or France, providing the Tongan-born player with the opportunity to see off his competitors.
[tie_slide]2. George Kruis (England)
George Kruis may have been one of England’s best performers of the Eddie Jones era thus far, but it seems as though the Saracens lock suffered a knee injury at the most inopportune time.
Despite his undoubted quality, if Kruis were to be passed fit tomorrow, would he be able to oust either Joe Launchbury or Courtney Lawes from the England second row?
Not only that, but Kruis can only look on as both Gray brothers have hit form at just the right time, while Gatland can also call on the experience of Alun Wyn Jones and might also be attracted to the security Devin Toner brings to the set piece. Maro Itoje cannot be overlooked either, despite being selected in the number six jersey for England.
[tie_slide]3. George Ford (England)
With Owen Farrell now England’s primary first choice inside centre, and Johnny Sexton struggling to overcome injury during the opening weekends of the Championship, not only had George Ford the opportunity to force his inclusion in the Lions squad but possibly even a starting place.
However, after a very poor defensive performance showing against Italy and an indifferent display during England’s close fought encounter with France, Ford could yet lose out to a confident looking Finn Russell.
[tie_slide]4. George North (Wales)
During the 80 minutes of rugby that were played in Murrayfield last weekend, George North touched the ball on three occassions. While such a statistic may be a symptom of Wales’ lack of cutting edge in attack, you would expect a winger who likes to come inside to demand the ball more often.
His injury problems apart, North has struggled for form over recent seasons. Although he has shown glimpses of his talent since the last Lions tour, North now faces competition from Jack Nowell, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland, Simon Zebo and Elliot Daly for a place in Warren Gatland’s squad.
[tie_slide]5. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
So far in this season’s Championship, Wales have looked blunt and error prone in attack. Although Rob Howley might be trying to introduce a more expansive brand of rugby, his side have struggled for creativity, particularly in the wider channels.
So far this campaign Stuart Hogg has underlined the value in having a counter-attacking outlet from the number 15 jersey, as have Mike Brown and Rob Kearney in the past. Nevertheless, despite having Liam Williams at their disposal, Wales persist with Halfpenny at fullback.
While the Toulon fullback might offer solidity and a high percentage kicking ratio, the Lions will need more in the backfield if they are to triumph in New Zealand.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
On this week’s Oval Office Podcast, Jacques Burger talks about his battle with depression, Benetton Treviso’s Ian McKinley reviews Italy’s performance against England and Daniel Killick of The Attacking Scrum tells us what’s gone wrong with Wales.
Read More About: All Blacks, alun wyn jones, British and Irish lions, cj stander, Dan Bigger, dylan hartley, george ford, george kruis, george north, iain henderson, Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Davies, Jonathan Joseph, leigh halfpenny, mike brown, new zealand, rob kearney, Taulupe Faletau