The Six Nations is done and dusted. England are champions, and we turn back to the club game for the next two months. However, the small matter next June’s Lions tour is looming on the horizon. Going to New Zealand is a big ask, and few will fancy the tourists to really trouble the world champions.
Selection for the side is going to be one of the major talking points between now and then, and some players made an early charge over the last few weeks.
With the Six Nations over, we don’t really know what to do with ourselves here at Pundit Arena HQ, so we have decided to imagine what the Lions starting team would look like if the tour were to start tomorrow.
Here is what we came up with.
15. Stuart Hogg
This is a real toss-up between Mike Brown and Hogg. Rob Kearney has receded, and realistically is at the bottom of the pecking order. Leigh Halfpenny’s return will make this one interesting, but on current form, Hogg gets the nod.
14. George North
North is still the best winger in Europe, and while not being at his very best this championship, he has shown throughout what he is capable of. The big winger remains one of the surer bets to be on the starting XV to face New Zealand in June 2017.
13. Jonathan Joseph
A hat-trick against Italy reaffirmed his status as the best second centre in the competition. He has struck up a lethal partnership with Owen Farrell in the English midfield, and at 24, he is only going to get even better.
12. Robbie Henshaw
Manu Tuilagi’s return will be monitored, but Leinster-bound Henshaw is becoming a real leader for Ireland. While he played in arguably his best position at 13 against England, he has returned to second receiver, and from there can take a game by the scruff of the neck.
11. Anthony Watson
The 22 year-old Watson is a deadly finisher, and can match it with real physicality that could potentially trouble the All Blacks. He could be competing with international teammate Jonny May for the one position in twelve months’ time.
10. Jonathan Sexton
This one will cause a fair bit of debate. Sexton is yet to hit the heights of last season on a consistent basis, but remains the most talented 10 in the Six Nations. He has controlled the Irish attack in their last two weeks.
Dan Biggar is making a strong case for inclusion, but Sexton gets the nod, just.
9. Rhys Webb
Webb’s return to full fitness is a major boost to Wales. Gareth Davies has excelled as a deputy, but Webb is a different class. Greig Laidlaw and Conor Murray are too slow with distribution, which would work against the high tempo game required to take on New Zealand.
1. Jack McGrath
Cian Healy is back to full fitness, but is unable to dislodge McGrath. The Leinster and Ireland loose-head is improving by the game at scrum-time, and puts in a solid shift around the park.
2. Dylan Hartley
Rory Best will be almost 35 next June, and while he is still doing a job for Ireland, he is unlikely to be up to the standard of beating the All-Blacks in 2017. Hartley has kept his head down for England, and has led by example for the Red Rose this championship.
3. WP Nel
The Scottish tight-head is the best scrummager at the Lions’ disposal. A dominant scrum is key to victory, and the South African-born 29 year-old can provide that.
4. Maro Itoje
Itoje’s man of the match display against Wales was simply immense. At the line-out and around the park, he was unplayable. He is only going to get better.
5. Alun Wyn Jones
The fact that the likes of Richie and Jonny Gray do not make this team shows the depth in this area. The Welsh lock has the experience to be one of the main men on this Lions side. Look for Iain Henderson to make a charge next season.
6. CJ Stander
The Munster man has taken to international rugby like a duck to water. While number 8 is still probably his best position, he has the versatility to thrive at blindside for the Lions.
7. John Hardie
Sam Warburton is not an automatic selection here. The Scottish openside is getting through a trojan amount of work on the ground, and on form is the premier 7 in Ireland and Britain.
8. Billy Vunipola
Impact is the name of the game. Vunipola has that in spades. He has led from the front in this championship, and his physicality can put the opposition on the back foot. At present, he is a shoo-in for the Lions.
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