The fourth instalment in this series of articles will analyse the options Warren Gatland has at second row for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.
Arguably the toughest position in the squad to select, there are several in-form locks with bags of international experience who many would argue deserve a place in the initial Lions squad.
However, not everyone can be picked. This article will aim to present and analyse the cases for each second rower who arguably deserve a place in this Lions squad.
The conclusion will present the five most likely candidates which Gatland could choose for the Lions squad (as was the case on the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia), with form and experience being the ultimate deciding factors.
- Donnacha Ryan
- Devin Toner
- Iain Henderson
- Ultan Dillane
The 2.01 metre Munster man started both of Ireland’s matches against New Zealand in the recent autumn internationals and come on as a late substitution in the win over Canada. Known for his intensity and orc-like features, Ryan has 43 caps to his name and seemed at first to have secured a starting position in the Ireland second row after Paul O’Connell’s retirement.
However, the rise and rise of Ultan Dillane, Iain Henderson and Josh van der Flier may lead to Ryan not being regularly picked in future Ireland squads. His experience, consistency in the Munster shirt and will to continually fight tooth and nail for results cannot be ignored, but there are arguably players who are in better form and possess a wider skill set.
Started Ireland’s matches against Australia and New Zealand alongside Ryan in the recent autumn internationals. At 2.10 metres and weighing approximately 124 kilos, Toner is an imposing figure to face on a rugby pitch and is the tallest player on this list – taller than New Zealand giants Sam Whitelock or Brodie Retallick.
He has amassed 42 caps for Ireland since his debut against Samoa in 2010, meaning he is also one of the most experienced locks on this list. His huge frame was noted in the past as being an issue as he lacked the size and physicality to match the technical attributes he brought to the field. However, Toner has put on weight and developed his ball carrying game in recent seasons to become one of Leinster and Ireland’s most consistent performers.
Another of Ireland’s world-class locks, Henderson missed the first two matches of the 2016 autumn internationals through injury but returned for the tests against the All Blacks and Australia. Able to play in both the back and second rows, he would add diversity to this Lions squad. However, Gatland may opt to choose players who play week in, week out in one position as they specialise in specific skill sets.
His fierce ball carrying and piston-like hand-offs are trademarks of his game, and at only 24 years of age it is likely that Henderson will be given many more opportunities to add to his 28 Ireland caps. If he maintains his form for Ulster and starts a majority of Ireland’s matches in the upcoming Six Nations (potentially helping Ireland win the tournament in the process) Henderson will be a strong contender for the initial Lions squad.
Started Ireland’s recent international against Canada and came off the bench for appearances against New Zealand and Australia. Dillane stands at 1.98 metres tall, weighs approximately 107 kilos and has earned eight caps for his mother’s homeland. He is in decent form for an injury-hit Connacht team which is struggling to replicate the results of an unexpected title-winning 2015/16 Pro 12 season.
Likely to be a firm fixture in future Ireland squads, Dillane may have to wait for the 2021 Lions tour of South Africa for his chance to pull on the famous red jersey as there is there are players on this list arguably in better form and with more experience at the top level of the sport.
- Maro Itoje
- George Kruis
- Joe Launchbury
- Courtney Lawes
Having missed all of England’s matches in the autumn series after fracturing his hand, his absence was seen as a big hit despite the depth Eddie Jones currently has in the second row – with Itoje, Kruis, Launchbury and Lawes all being under the age of 27 and having 118 caps between them (less than All Black duo Retallick and Whitelock’s combination).
Itoje may only have seven caps to his name, but he has started six of those games and has seemingly displaced the likes of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes in England’s starting lineups. His ability to play in both the back and second rows, his all round skill set and mental strength are attributes which set him apart from most second rowers. Itoje might only be 21 years old, but many have already stated that he is a strong contender for Gatland’s initial squad and that he is a certainty to be selected for England’s upcoming Six Nations campaign (barring injury).
Itoje’s partner at club and international level, Kruis also missed the start of England’s recent autumn internationals through injury, but started and played over 70 minutes for the matches against Argentina and Australia. His partnership with Itoje in the England pack’s engine room was pivotal to their 2016 Six Nations grand slam, and the understanding between the two on the field should not be ignored.
His form in the upcoming Six Nations and for Saracens (in what could be a historic season for the London-based club) will decide his fate regarding selection for the Lions’ 2017 tour of New Zealand.
The Wasps captain retained his place in England’s starting lineup for the 2016 autumn internationals – albeit largely due to injuries to Kruis and Itoje. Alongside Lawes in the second row, Launchbury helped England to an undefeated autumn series and was named Man of the Match for his performance in the 37-21 win over South Africa.
Arguably lucky to be given only a two-week ban for a kick to the head of Fiji’s Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Launchbury missed the last two games of England’s autumn internationals – and he might struggle to earn his starting place back with Itoje and Kruis playing well for Saracens. If Launchbury can keep Kruis, Itoje or Lawes out of a starting place for England, he will be a frontrunner for a place in Gatland’s initial Lions squad.
England’s most experienced option at lock with 53 caps to his name, Lawes has noticeably dialled down his intensity in the tackle at international level – maybe because he’s been told to in order to avoid citations. It might be worth taking him on this tour just to get him to empty Beauden Barrett as early as possible in the test series, forcing him out of the rest of the matches with injury.
Still a firm fixture in Eddie Jones’ recent England squads, Lawes played in all four of the 2016 autumn internationals – starting and playing the full 80 in three of those matches. Northampton Saints may not be getting the best results this season, but if Lawes can help turn their domestic season around whilst capitalising on any international opportunities presented to him, he will definitely improve his chances of being selected for Gatland’s Lions
- Alun Wyn Jones
- Luke Charteris
Alun Wyn Jones
The most experienced option on this list with six British and Irish Lions caps and 105 Wales caps. Jones has been on almost every pundit’s list of players Gatland is likely to select in his preliminary squad for the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
His familiarity and common understanding with Lions coaches Gatland and Rob Howley may improve his chances of being selected, but some would argue that players should be picked based on form, with there being second rowers from the home nations which are currently playing better rugby than the 31-year-old Ospreys captain. That being said, he has led from the front for the Welsh club this season and will surely be fired up for the upcoming Six Nations.
Luke Charteris has enjoyed a long and relatively injury-free career, having played for Perpignan and Racing 92 over the past four seasons and currently plying his trade at Bath. He is the second most capped lock on this list with 71.
The 2.06 metre tall, 124 kilo second rower has not received as much acclaim for his performances in the Welsh jersey as fellow locks Alun Wyn Jones or Ian Evans, and is an outsider to be selected for this Lions tour. However, Gatland’s familiarity with the Welsh Lock may improve his chances of selection, whilst he also has the opportunity to impress in the upcoming Six Nations (if selected).
- Jonny Gray
- Richie Gray
The younger and (slightly) shorter Gray brother has earned plaudits in the last two seasons for his mature and physical performances for Glasgow and Scotland, being made captain of his club this season. At 1.98 metres and 119 kilos Gray combines an aggressive ball carrying game with hard-hitting defence and is arguably the more in-form Gray brother at this point in time.
If he can lead Glasgow to a successful season in the Pro 12 and European competitions, as well as contribute to a successful Scottish Six Nations campaign, Gray may earn selection into the initial Lions squad. Still only 22 years old, here’s hoping that Jonny Gray doesn’t follow his brother’s footsteps and move to a financially stronger French club – for the sake of Scottish rugby’s competitiveness at club and national level.
2.08 metres tall and 128 kilos in weight, Gray is a behemoth of a man. He was Scotland’s standout performer when Andy Robinson was the head coach of the national team, but since moving from Glasgow to Castres Gray has not had the same impact on international matches.
Impossible to miss with his peroxide blonde mop and huge frame, Gray is a fixed starter for Scotland. However, he will need to rediscover the form that earned him a call-up to Gatland’s squad for the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.
Jones is the most popular choice for selections by Gatland. He is by far the most experienced option available, is a leader on and off the pitch, is in good form for club and country and presumably has a strong mutual understanding with Gatland and Howley. However, Wales are widely tipped to have a rough Six Nations in terms of results, meaning that Jones’ form during the tournament will need to be of high quality, as experience alone will not mean he makes it into Gatland’s initial squad.
Toner would be another choice due to his size and the fact that he is on form for club and country, seeming to improve his ball carrying game play season after season. He would bring extra competitiveness at the lineout due to his height, an area which will be crucial against the vastly experienced Retallick and Whitelock.
Charteris and Gray are the next tallest locks in this list, but they are not in the same form as Toner and will most likely need some special performances for club and country to replace the Leinster man in the initial Lions touring party.
Itoje and Kruis (if they aren’t injured) could be a further two choices to be selected in Gatland’s initial squad. Their contrasting skill sets, diverse styles of play and familiarity due to playing together at club and international level (in title-winning squads) could be the key factors in this decision. However, they will need to be in fine form in a winning Six Nations campaign for England (and remain injury free) if they are to be sure-fire contenders for Gatland’s Lions. Itoje may lack experience but he brings an X-factor which many locks (or back-rowers) can’t, whereas Kruis is a battering ram and team-oriented player.
The final lock position will be decided purely on form, with Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Launchbury, Lawes and Henderson being the most likely candidates due to their recent form and unique talents.
Gatland and his coaching team will know what they want out of second rowers when the Six Nations kicks off in February, so it’s just a case of matching their requirements with the player they believe can contribute the most to this touring party.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena