The second in a series looking at the best options from each country for each position, this article analyses the options Warren Gatland and his coaching team have at hooker for the upcoming British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.
It is assumed that three hookers will initially be chosen in the preliminary Lions squad, as was the case in the 2013 Lions tour of Australia.
Ireland – Rory Best, Sean Cronin
The current Ireland and Ulster captain recently earned his 100th international cap against Australia, and in what is an early premonition Andy Farrell (defence coach at Ireland and on Gatland’s Lions team) has stated Best has a better chances of leading the Lions tour of New Zealand than fellow number 2 Dylan Hartley. Not too surprising seeing as Hartley isn’t exactly a prefect ambassador for the British and Irish Lions on foreign soil.
The 34-year-old, 100 kilo hooker has reinvigorated his career over the past decade – putting his focus into being one of the fittest front rowers in the game. Best is almost a certainty for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.
Best’s compatriot and Leinster’s current first choice hooker, Cronin, has amassed 56 caps for Ireland – with 47 coming off the bench. He has had to play second fiddle within the Ireland set-up since his debut in 2009 to the likes of Jerry Flannery and Rory Best, but is highly regarded for his quick turn of pace (for a front-rower) and aggressive ball-carrying game.
The native Munsterman has been reliable for Leinster and Ireland over the past few seasons and despite not being his country’s premier hooker, Cronin will be one to watch for a place in Gatland’s Lions squad.
England – Dylan Hartley, Jamie George
Having missed the 2013 Lions tour of Australia due to an eleven-week suspension for calling referee Wayne Barnes a “f****** cheat” in that year’s Premiership final, Hartley has just under six months to make his best effort at getting suspended in time for this Lions tour.
After receiving a six-week suspension for his slightly high/reckless/late “tackle” on Sean O’Brien, Hartley will have limited time to prove that his obvious rugby ability and developing leadership skills warrant Gatland selecting him in his initial Lions squad.
At 30 years of age, the current England and Saints captain will have spent 60 weeks suspended when the Six Nations kicks off on February 4th, 2017. He will be eligible for England selection if Eddie Jones sees fit, but whether he will retain the England captaincy remains to be seen.
Praised for his technical abilities, pace and offloading skills, the 26-year-old Saracens and England hooker has become a firm fixture in Eddie Jones’ squads in 2016 – albeit as a reserve for Dylan Hartley. This has been no easy task as England currently have a handful of hookers, including Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tommy Taylor and Tom Youngs, who deserve a chance to prove their worth to Eddie Jones.
The 2017 Six Nations may see George challenge for Dylan Hartley’s starting place in the national squad (due to the current England captain’s suspension), and being part of a Saracens outfit which look capable of winning a double-double won’t hurt George’s chances of inclusion into the initial Lions squad.
If George can impress for club and country in the coming months, he will be another strong contender for a place in Gatland’s initial Lions squad.
Wales – Scott Baldwin, Ken Owens
Wales’ starting hooker for all five of their matches in the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Six Nations, Baldwin had seemingly become his country’s first choice at number 2. However, Ken Owens recently started three of Wales’ four matches in the 2016 autumn internationals. With 28 caps to his name, Baldwin has less international experience than Scarlets hooker Owens but is an abrasive and physical ball carrier.
His form for the Ospreys will decide whether he displaces Owens in Wales’ starting lineup for the 2017 Six Nations. If he does this and plays a role in a successful Six Nations campaign with Wales (which pundits argue is a stretch), Baldwin has a reasonable shout of being named in the preliminary Lions squad.
Having earned 45 international caps since 2011, Owens initially had to wait for his chance at the Scarlets and for Wales as Matthew Rees was first choice hooker for club and country. Since missing most of the 2015 Six Nations due to injury, Scott Baldwin has been Gatland’s first choice at number 2.
More recently, however, Owens started Wales matches against Australia, Argentina and South Africa in the 2016 autumn internationals whilst Baldwin was on the bench for all three of these fixtures – signalling a shift in Wales’ coaching staff’s opinion of the 29-year-old.
Scarlets currently sit in fourth in the Pro12 and recently beat Toulon in the Champions Cup – but are regarded as outsiders to win silverware in either competition. Owens is in a similar situation to Baldwin, as both are competing to start for the Welsh national team. He will need to lead from the front in a successful Scarlets campaign and impress for Wales when given the chance if he is to compete for a spot in Gatland’s initial Lions squad.
Scotland – Ross Ford, Fraser Brown
The Scotland and Edinburgh stalwart has had a mixed run of form for club and country over the past few years, but remains a firm fixture in a Scotland squad led by a third foreign-born head coach since Frank Hadden left the position in 2009.
Ford has earned 102 caps for Scotland and is the heaviest hooker in this list, weighing in at 117 kilos. He has been noted for his physical approach with ball in hand and in the tackle, but has also been recognised for his inconsistent form.
Ford is the most experienced international hooker available to Gatland and if he can help Scotland to a successful Six Nations campaign (above fourth), he may sneak into Gatland’s initial squad ahead of younger rivals.
Ford’s current backup in Vern Cotter’s Scotland squad, Brown has been a firm fixture in a Glasgow Warriors team which has surprised many fans and pundits in recent seasons with their exciting, ambitious and effective style of rugby. His form in domestic and European competitions, as well as being a part of a successful Warriors outfit, led to him being named in each match day squad put out over the autumn internationals.
At 27 years old and with 20 international caps to his name (17 coming as a substitute), Brown is likely to be a regular fixture in Gregor Townsend’s future Scotland squads, but is unlikely to be on the plane to New Zealand at the end of May – due largely to has lack of international experience.
Rory Best is almost guaranteed a place in the initial Lions squad and is a strong contender to lead 35-or-so players selected for this tour of New Zealand. His years of experience at the top end of Irish rugby and the lack of controversy surrounding his career highlight why he would be a great ambassador for British and Irish rugby on foreign soil.
Dyaln Hartley is arguably the next best option available to Gatland. Despite his disciplinary issues, Hartley has led England unexpectedly well in 2016 and is one of the more experienced hookers in this list. What Eddie Jones decides to do with his current captain will have consequences regarding whether or not Gatland selects Hartley in May.
The third and final hooking position in the squad is competitive – with Sean Cronin, Jamie George, Scott Baldwin, Ken Owens and Ross Ford all realistically vying for this place. Based on a combination of form, experience and success at both club and international levels, George can be argued to be the most likely candidate at this point in time.
However, there is not doubt that injuries, suspensions, form in the Six Nations and the success of each of these players’ clubs over the rest of the season will dictate who Gatland selects for each hooking position come May.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena
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