The 2017 Six Nations Championship is now two rounds old and, much like last year, it is England who are rumbling towards a series victory, with Ireland leading the chase to catch the streaking Red Rose.
In the first season where bonus points are being employed in the marquee test championship, it is shaping up to be another enthralling tournament. As England look to retain the title they emphatically secured last year, Eddie Jones’ side are also looking to continue their 16-game winning streak and, hopefully, surpass the record (18) set by New Zealand in 2016.
For the home nations, there is even more to play for this term. The British and Irish Lions tour has rolled back into town again and this summer head coach Warren Gatland will take the best of the best to the home of the two-time defending world champions, New Zealand.
Some names will already have been added to Gatland’s squad list, while others will be looking to put their hand up for selection during the Six Nations.
Now, after two rounds, a picture is emerging of just what is the best Lions XV based on form. Here’s how it looks.
Spectacularly returning from a broken leg, Marler has knuckled down in the English scrum and shows no ill effects of his time on the sidelines. Against France’s monster pack, Marler helped England secure 86 per cent of their own scrum, while against Wales they secured all seven of their scrum set-pieces and took one of Wales’ for good measure. Personally, Marler has contributed five carries and one defender beaten across the two games.
Joining his England teammate at the front of the scrum., Cole is under the fiercest of competition for his Lions spot from Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong. After two rounds, however, the Englishman is shading it based on England’s scrum performance. When it comes to carries, Furlong (16) is streets ahead of the English tighthead (3) after two rounds, leading many to feel Gatland will give the nod to the rampaging Irishman.
The Wales hooker offers a combination of solid lineout ball in addition to ball carrying. With 15 carries and two defenders beaten so far, Owens has helped deliver 15 successful lineouts from a possible 18 in Wales’ first two matches.
The 25-year-old, alongside Courtney Lawes in the second row, has helped England dominate sides in the scrum and lineout, contributing a massive 23 carries so far.
The big hitting Lawes forms a formidable partnership with Launchbury in the second row, chipping in 21 carries and two defenders beaten so far. As a pairing, Gatland can, so far, rest easy for his Lions picks.
When it comes to the No.6 jersey for the Lions, CJ Stander has it nailed on so far. Rampant for Munster and Ireland this season, the South Africa-born ball carrier tops the try scoring table so far with three and can already claim an incredible 46 carries, 13 defenders beaten and a total of 122 metres made to date.
The Tullow Tank has returned from a near two-year layoff with hamstring and calf injuries but shows no ill effects as he joins teammate Stander on the flanks of the scrum. Known for carrying the ball through opponents rather than around, O’Brien has contributed 30 ball carries, made 62 metres, beaten six defenders, made two clean breaks and completed two offloads so far. Should he remain fit, that’s the Lions No.7 jersey filled.
The England Number 8 is neck and neck with Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip. With both having completed 37 carries, Hughes shades the metres made statistic, 121 to Heaslip’s 108. With five defenders beaten to Heaslip’s three, the Irishman has added three offloads to Hughes’ zero. This one couldn’t be closer but right now, Hughes get the nod.
The Irishman is in a battle with England’s Ben Youngs for the starting spot on Gatland’s Lions XV but with the Munster man in imperious form all season, he continues to shade his English counterpart. Comparable in carries, 12 to 11, Murray eclipses Youngs in passes complete, 230 to 134. The Englishman. however, trumps Murray in metres made, 48 to 29.
Rubber-stamping his own credentials in the absence of the injured Johnny Sexton, Jackson equalled Jonny Wilkinson’s conversions in a single game record against Italy last weekend when he slotted all nine conversion attempts. With 11 from 12 conversions completed, 114 metres made and 100 passes, Jackson’s biggest threat for the No.10 jersey actually lies in England’s Owen Farrell, who has been utilised at inside-centre under Eddie Jones’ regime.
The fly-half turned centre has seemingly found a comfortable home in the middle of the field. While still retaining kicking duties over George Ford, Farrell’s physicality allows him pose a massive threat to defences from the attack-minded position. Nobody can touch his No. 12 jersey just yet.
The Wales centre has been lighting it up once again under interim boss Rob Howley. With 124 metres made, 24 carries, six defenders beaten and one try, he leads Ireland’s rising star Garry Ringrose in the race for the No. 13 jersey. Davies will need to maintain his current form as 22-year-old Ringrose, with only five international caps, is looking more and more like a star of the present rather than the future and is answering all the questions asked in order to be a Lion.
The Munster flier notched two tries against Italy before switching to centre. With over 80 metres made and 20 carries so far, Earls has his hand up for selection for a position that appears the most competitive ahead of the Lions selection. Compatriot Simon Zebo, Wales’ Liam Williams and England’s Elliot Daly are all vying for their place in the starting XV.
Williams gets the nod ahead of Zebo and Daly for a spot in the XV. With two tries, 113 metres made, four defenders beaten and five clean breaks, the Welshman is proving a real handful so far.
Scotland’s only representative in the Lions XV so far is also likely the most nailed on spot of all. Hogg is, as always, in imperious form. Dangerous from any position on the field, he has terrorised both Irish and French defensive lines so far this series, scoring a brace along the way.
With stiff competition from the likes of Mike Brown, Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney, Hogg will need to maintain this form in order to secure the No.15 jersey. However, with Halfpenny providing an assured boot and a greater physical presence, Wales boss Gatland may favour the Welshman come crunch time.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena