With Lions tours only coming around every four years and places on these tours being selected from four international teams, no position can be taken for granted.
Simply getting on the plane is in many ways an achievement, let alone making the starting lineup in one of the tests. With that said though, there are always positions that prove to be incredibly competitive each tour due to all the home nations having top talent fit and in form at the same time.
Here, therefore, are what are going to be the three most competitive positions in terms of making selection and making the starting test team for next year’s Lions tour to New Zealand.
1. Second Row
At the moment each of the home nations teams seems to be extremely lucky in terms of the quality of their second row options.
Scotland’s Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, were superb at the weekend in their nations agonising late defeat to the Wallabies. The pair of them were all over the pitch making carries and an incredibly impressive 40 odd tackles between them.
Ireland have the incredibly tall Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan and Ultan Dillane vying for their lock positions. The starting pair against the All Blacks in Ireland’s famous win a fortnight ago at Soldier Field in Chicago was Toner and Ryan, and this famous victory must buoy their chances of Lions selection, especially if they were to do the unthinkable and defeat the Kiwis again this weekend.
In Wales, although not in the form of previous years, Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris seem the most likely options to be selected. With the Welsh team as a whole seemingly under-performing in 2016, an almighty Six Nations campaign may be necessary for either of these second row veterans to make the team. Charteris seems the more likely of the two due to his expertise at the lineout.
The English, in the finest form currently of the home nations, are where one can presume the majority of the second row options for the Lions tour will be selected from. With Maro Itoje and George Kruis performing so admirably over the Six Nations and summer tour to Australia and Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury taking over with little difference this autumn, England’s stock in the row looks promising.
What may differentiate the options and head Lions coach Warren Gatland’s selection is what the make-up of the rest of his pack looks like. If he decides to go with the biggest pack available hoping to scrum and maul the All Blacks out of the game the height and lineout expertise of Toner and Charteris could come into the fore and be matched with the size of either of the Grays or Launchbury.
If he were to select the more mobile, skilful operators in an attempt to play a high tempo, expansive game against the All Blacks then Itoje and Kruis would appear to be the finest options here. Although both currently out injured for this autumn, their form over the past twelve months as a pair, both at club and international level, would make their selections seem something of an automatic decision.
Their injuries now may also provide long-term benefits to the pair as their rest and rehab period at the moment may see them be fresher come the start of the Lions tour at the end of a long domestic season.
Itoje could also be seen as an option on the flank though for the Lions due to his incredible athleticism and ability to scavenge the ball at the breakdown and so his selection will be an interesting one.
Presuming that five locks are selected in the squad like the 2009 and 2013 tours then this writer’s picks to make the squad in the second row (based on current form) would be:
Maro Itoje (England)
George Kruis (England)
Jonny Gray (Scotland)
Devin Toner (Ireland)
Joe Launchbury (England)
The number of fullbacks chosen to play on a Lions tour tends to depend upon the ability of other member’s of the squad to cover this position and the ability of the fullbacks selected to cover other positions. In 2009 only two fullbacks, Lee Byrne and Rob Kearney, were selected, whilst in 2013 Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Kearney were selected, based upon the fact that Hogg was also covering at fly-half.
The options at fly-half look for 2017’s Lions tour look incredibly strong based on current form but at fullback there is also an impressive choice of players. As a result it would therefore not be that surprising to see Gatland select three fullbacks for this tour, with at least one of the three being an option at wing too.
With this said the form fullbacks in the home nations at the moment are without doubt Wales’ Liam Williams and Scotland’s Stuart Hogg. Both of these individuals are likely to make the tour based upon current form and Williams would also provide Gatland with an option on the wing if there was a need for it.
As a result a third spot would be hotly contested between Mike Brown, Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny. Ireland’s Tiernan O’Halloran and England’s Alex Goode would also be good options based on current form, but neither has had the same exposure at international level as the other three options and this international inexperience comparatively is likely to cost them.
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Mike Brown, having been the talisman of the England backline under Stuart Lancaster, has seen his powers waning slowly in 2016 and although his competitive attitude and resilience are greatly admired his on-field contributions may not be as good as other candidates by the time the squad is announced in April.
Halfpenny, the 2013 Lions tour’s player of the series, may have not quite regathered form since his return from a long injury layoff and so does have a chance. His goal kicking made him the star of the 2013 tour, however with Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton expected to be amongst the fly-half options and both excellent international goal kickers, this may be irrelevant. Both he and Brown will need big Six Nations in order to make the cut.
That leaves Rob Kearney as a potential third option to make the tour and in this writer’s opinion he is the most likely to. With two previous Lions tours and with a win over the All Blacks in the last three years to his name, something none of the other fullbacks can say they have, Kearney may provide the experienced head to the two younger options at fullback.
As a result this writer suggest the fullback options will look as follows:
Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Rob Kearney (Ireland)
Liam Williams (Wales)
3. Openside Flanker
At openside flanker the All Blacks for years had the almost omnipotent Richie McCaw as their talisman and captain. Since his retirement after last year’s World Cup, you would have expected there to be a drop in quality in the All Blacks openside options as the team rebuilds. Instead however, the New Zealanders can now call upon three outstanding options who have shared the jersey over 2016 and all look as good as one another.
Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Matt Todd give the All Blacks the strongest options at 7 of all international teams at the moment and the battle between the Lions and All Blacks at openside will be key to deciding the fate of the test series.
With the Lions going with either five or six flankers in the last two tours, one can presume that only two, perhaps three openside specialists will be taken to New Zealand next year.
Wales had two representatives on the 2013 tour to Australia as Sam Warburton (2013 tour captain) and Justin Tipuric selected. Both of these players can expect to be in the fray again although on current form Tipuric seems the more likely. His all round game offers more than Warburton and could be used to combat the dynamic running game of Savea or the linking game that Todd or Cane provide. His selection though would depend upon his ability to first usurp Warburton at Wales level. A tough test considering Warburton is technically, even if not holding the position this autumn, Wales’ captain.
Scotland’s Johns, Barclay and Hardie, both offer potential options at the openside too. Barclay is a veteran operator on the international stage now and does much of the unseen work in defence and at the breakdown. Hardie, hoping to play back in his country of birth on the tour, is a more classic 7. Strong over the ball and tenacious in defence he, like Barclay, will need to show these abilties in abundance over the Six Nations. A strong campaign for the Scottish in February and March would not go amiss for these two.
England’s James Haskell was having a stellar 2016 up until his foot injury, which kept him out of the third test against Australia and this autumn. Not a classic 7, Haskell’s great strengths do not come in jackling and stealing the oppositions ball, but more in his aggressive defence and ability to keep the oppositions 7 from having such a great effect on the game. His injury now could see him be an option come April, provided he will have had enough time to play his way back into form with both Wasps and England.
Ireland’s Jordi Murphy, heroic in the short time he was on the pitch against the All Blacks nearly a fortnight ago, is in the same boat as Haskell but worse. His injury in that game expected to keep him out for 6-9 months, he faces a tough test to be playing again in time for the squad’s selection, let alone be in top form. Sean O’Brien came in for Ireland against Canada and gives Gatland a similar option to Haskell on the open-side. Murphy’s injury perhaps opens the door for him after he has just overcome his own injury problems.
Murphy’s injury does also open up the possibility of Josh van der Flier pressing his claims in an Ireland shirt, with the potential to make the tour if his form is as good as the hype suggests it can be. The young Leinster back row is strong over the ball, quick and energetic around the park and if lucky enough to get a string of games together for Ireland, could make a late push.
His selection would come under the title of bolter though in many regards due to his lack of international experience. Another player whom may be on the minds of many northern hemisphere supporters is that of Sam Underhill. Although an unrealistic selection with no caps for England, and looking unlikely to have done so before April, Underhill would be a far out call by Gatland.
However, he has at times outperformed his Ospreys colleague Tipuric and in Lions tradition would be a true bolter and someone whom the All Blacks have not prepared for. Although this is the pick many of us would love to see it is more likely Gatland will go with Warburton and Tipuric, both of whom he knows very well and one of either James Haskell or Sean O’Brien due to their versatility to play across the back row.
Therefore, this writer though thinks that Gatland’s openside options for 2017 will look as follows:
Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Sam Warburton (Wales)
James Haskell (England)
Hamish Milner, Pundit Arena
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