With the Six Nations Championship only weeks away, who will claim the coveted prize of the starting jersey in a position which is arguably the strongest for The British and Irish Lions?
If the Autumn Internationals are anything to go by, the competition for places on board the flight to New Zealand will be as ferocious as has been in recent memory. Although the lion’s share of the headlines went to England and Ireland, several players from Wales and Scotland have certainly made their respective cases for inclusion to the class of 2017.
One position in particular will leave Warren Gatland and his staff with headaches all round: scrum half. While there is plenty of rugby to be played prior to the tour next summer, listed below are the four candidates to start against The All Blacks, barring injury or major loss of form.
Conor Murray (Ireland)
The Garryowen man’s heroics for Ireland in their five-try defeat of New Zealand in Chicago will have certainly put him in a position to stake a claim for the starting spot. A first choice at number 9 in Australia three years ago, Murray has progressed since then to become the fulcrum of an Ireland side who have under their belts a first clean-sweep of the old Tri-Nations in their history.
Immensely physical and with a good all-round game, the Munster man’s excellent partnership with Jonathan Sexton could potentially be a key part in the selection process.
If Sexton is chosen at 10, and Murray can sustain the form which has seen him become one of the world’s premier scrum-halfs, it will be hard to look past him for the starting spot. The Limerick man outplayed opposite number Aaron Smith in Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand this Autumn, and has been a consistent performer for the “Men in Green” all year.
Ben Youngs (England)
The Leicester Tigers man has played arguably the best rugby of his career under Eddie Jones, and has been tipped by many to get the nod over his challengers. Youngs’ performances over the Autumn series have been impressive, but none more so than the “man of the match” display in England’s victory over Australia last weekend.
The English number nine is a player that thrives on confidence around him, and typifies the positive mood around Twickenham that has seen England finish 2016 with a perfect record, not seen since 1992. As with Murray, Youngs’ half-back partner could potentially play a part in determining if he will start against New Zealand.
A player clearly thriving under Jones’ tutorage and tactics, if the team was to be named tomorrow, Youngs would be on the bench at very least. Youngs lacks the physical edge which Murray brings, but his speed and ability to dictate the pace of the game could be vital against Steve Hansen’s men.
Greg Laidlaw (Scotland)
Scotland’s maestro will be heading for pastures new next summer, as he has signed a deal to join Top 14 giants Clermont Auvergne upon the expiry of his contract with Gloucester. Captain of The Scots since 2011, he is as crucial to his team as any player expected to tour, as evidenced in last years World Cup performances.
Harshly unlucky not to have toured in 2013 following his excellent performances in that years Six Nations, Laidlaw can be forgiven for seeing Webb’s injury as a potential positive to his own aspirations of achieving selection to Gatland’s panel of Lions.
Like all on this list, Laidlaw still has work to do to convince he is worthy of place in the squad, but with the form of Murray and Youngs driving their respective countries forward this autumn, he will need exceptional performances in next year’s Six Nations to capture the starting spot in the first test.
Rhys Webb (Wales)
The Ospreys man has been luckless of late, to say the least. A poor day against Australia in Cardiff got worse when he was stretchered off with an ankle injury, which looks certain to keep him out of action until the new year. An uphill battle is looming for Webb, considering he will need to re-establish himself at 9 for Wales prior to putting his hand up for selection in New Zealand.
The Welshman, however, is a class act, and put in an excellent display earlier this year in Wales’ 36-22 loss in Wellington against the world champions. If Webb can return from injury (and crucially, stay injury free ) assuming performances are on par with his usual high-standards, there is no reason to believe that he should not be in contention to secure a seat on the plane next summer.
At this early stage the Welshman is at the bottom of the list, but there is still ample time for him to put forward a strong case if he can get back on the pitch in red next February.
Adam Haynes, Pundit Arena
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