The November series thought us a lot about international rugby. We learned that the All Blacks are indeed fallible, that England have tremendous depth and competition for places, and that South Africa’s freefall may be a lot worse than what even the Springboks biggest skeptics may have predicted.
But what we’ve also learned from the November internationals was that several Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh players may have given their Lions credentials a big boost with their performances last month.
Ireland prop Tadgh Furlong, England duo Jonathan Joseph and George Ford, and Wales’ Liam Williams have all taken massive steps towards British & Irish Lions consideration next year, and as a result, we asked some of our staff writers to select their current Lions starters following another brilliant round of November internationals.
Paul Wassell – Mako Vunipola – The England prop has taken his play around the field to a new level this year under Eddie Jones and his scrummaging is getting stronger. He provides a real ‘X factor’ quality that puts him ahead of his nearest rivals.
Angus Cross – Mako Vunipola – It has been quite evident all the way back to his first inclusion on a Lions tour in 2013 that Mako Vunipola had the potential to be a world-class player. He was selected on the basis that he was an impact substitution to add a hard running game to trouble a tiring Australian defence late on in proceedings. Vunipola has become a world-class operator at loosehead prop. His handling skills see him not look out of place at first receiver for Saracens and England, and he is almost a certainty to start against New Zealand, with Ireland’s Jack McGrath pushing him closely.
Jack O’Toole – Mako Vunipola – Has improved tremendously over the past few years and is really playing some of the best rugby of his career at the moment. One of the best ball running front rowers in world rugby and an ever improving scrummager with a slick set of hands to boot. Will face strong competition from Jack McGrath but should edge him.
Hamish Milner – Mako Vunipola – 2016 has been a superb year for the Saracens man. Having always had a strong game around the field he has also now improved his scrummaging greatly. A sure tourist if not a definite starter at this stage of the process.
Alan Drumm – Jack McGrath – Although Mako Vunipola might prove to be the Lions starting loosehead, Ireland exposed a possible weakness in the All Black scrum. As McGrath is arguably a better scrummager, I have gone with the Irishman.
Paul – Dylan Hartley – Hartley’s best years as a player might arguably be behind him, but as an international captain you can’t argue with his record. His players want to play for him and he galvanises the sides he leads. This will be paramount on a tour with the nature of the Lions.
Angus – Dylan Hartley – Hartley’s appointment as England captain at the start of Eddie Jones’ reign received widespread criticism due to his ill-discipline. However, Hartley has proven all his critics wrong, and in many ways deserves the Lions captaincy, and is the best candidate for the job. Despite being pushed very hard by Saracens’ Jamie George, Hartley’s leadership qualities and solidness in the set piece see him start as a player and a captain.
Jack – Rory Best – Best has played some phenomenal rugby over the past few months and has really grown into Ireland’s unquestioned leader after an initial adjustment period following the international retirements of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. At 34-years-old, Best will be one of the older Lions starters if he’s selected next year, but based on his most recent performances, the Ulster hooker has never looked better.
Hamish – Jamie George – Coming into his prime off the back of a season that could not have been any more successful. An Aviva Premiership medal, European Champions Cup, Six Nations Grand slam, Australian summer series whitewash winner. George is the man with the best all-around game in the British and Irish Isles and most likely the player to match Dane Coles over three tests next summer.
Alan – Rory Best – Following England’s stunning series win over Australia, it appeared as though Dylan Hartley was not only set to become the Lions starting hooker, but also a potential captain.
However, after a largely underwhelming November series in which his tackle completion rate stood at 68% following England’s win over Argentina, Hartley’s hold of the jersey has loosened.
By contrast, Best has been in inspiring form for Ireland but inevitably the Six Nations will ultimately decide this battle.
Pundit Arena Staff Pick – Rory Best
Paul – Tadhg Furlong – A fierce physical specimen and so powerful at the set piece, Furlong’s international career is only just beginning but he has already showcased his abilities – particularly in the famous first win over the All Blacks in Chicago last month.
Angus – Tadhg Furlong – Although he is a relative newcomer for Ireland, only starting four tests, Furlong was absolutely outstanding in Ireland’s sweep over New Zealand, Australia and South Africa this autumn. His main competition, England’s Dan Cole, Scotland’s WP Nell, and Wales’ Samson Lee, all have their qualities, but Furlong appears to be a frontrunner due to his all round game, such that would compliment Mako Vunipola and Hartley well.
Jack – Tadgh Furlong – Furlong made his Ireland debut against Wales in 2015 and sat behind long time Irish tighthead Mike Ross for both last year’s Rugby World Cup and this year’s Six Nations. The Wexford native broke into the Irish pack during the summer and hasn’t looked back since, with a string of dominant performances this month against Australia and New Zealand. Should easily see off the challenge of Tomas Francis, WP Nel, Samson Lee and Dan Cole.
Hamish – Tadhg Furlong – Having usurped Mike Ross for Ireland, the young tighthead has improved his ball carrying game and is now a monster in all areas of the game. He should be part of a very mobile, exciting front row.
Alan – WP Nel – Both Dan Cole and Tadhg Furlong might be better around the field, but WP Nel is the best scrummaging tighthead available to the Lions. Winning the set piece battle could be crucial.
Paul – Jonny Gray – Many will be calling for George Kruis’ inclusion given his outstanding partnership with Maro Itoje so far this year, but Gray is a wonderful talent, an excellent ball carrier and an absolute monster in defence.
Angus – George Kruis – Completing the second best second row partnership in World Rugby is Itoje’s fellow Saracen, George Kruis. Kruis has progressed from a skinny prodigy to a top quality lock forward under the tutelage of former teammate Steve Borthwick. His work-rate and knowledge of the line out and dirty work around the field makes him the quieter of the two regarding headline performances, but makes him equally important to any side he plays in. Alun Wyn Jones is undoubtedly going to play a big part in the tour as well.
Jack – Alun Wyn-Jones – Was one of the Lions standout performers on the triumphant 2013 tour of Australia and is among the favourites to captain the side next summer. Will face very stiff competition from Itoje’s England and Saracens teammate George Kruis, but at his best, Wyn-Jones is still among the best second-rowers in world rugby and has a penchant for rising to the big occasion, especially in Lions series.
Hamish – Jonny Gray – One of the shining lights in Scottish rugby at the moment, this young man just keeps getting better and better. Magnificent around the park, admirable in defence, the young Scot is everywhere on the pitch and his energy will help match the Lions against Retallick and Whitelock.
Alan – George Kruis – As Maro Itoje is nailed onto start in the second row, it leaves Jonny Gray, Devin Toner and Alun Wyn Jones fighting to partner the him. But why break up an already proven combination at club and international level?
Pundit Arena Staff Pick – George Kruis (also has nomination on next slide).
Paul – Maro Itoje – The Saracens’ lock made an immediate impact on his introduction to international rugby and has gone from strength to strength since, with his all-round skills sets and wonderful work rate putting him as one of the best players in either hemisphere.
Angus – Maro Itoje – The rise of Maro Itoje is a well-known story all around the rugby world. Within two years of professional rugby, he has picked up four club trophies, including the Champions Cup, as well as a Six Nations Grand Slam with England. His incredibly influential performances and countless man of the match awards saw him win European Player of the Year, the fourth Englishmen in five years to win the award, and the Breakthrough Player of the Year. ‘Super Maro’ at present must be the first name on the team sheet.
Jack – Maro Itoje – No brainer. Enjoyed one of the best debut seasons of any international player in history which was capped off by a World Rugby Player of the Year nominee. Exceptional player and has the potential to be a truly transcendent force in his position.
Hamish – George Kruis – A difficult one to pick considering the form of players like Richie Gray, Devin Toner and Joe Launchbury. Kruis though runs the Saracens and England lineouts and both are superbly oiled machines mostly thanks to this man’s intelligence. A key area of the game against the All Blacks lineout maestros Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, the Lions will need to win this battle to have any hope against the Kiwis.
Alan – Maro Itoje – The best second row in the northern hemisphere if not the world. Nailed on starter.
Paul – Chris Robshaw – In the same way that Richard Hill became such a pivotal player for England, Robshaw has taken his game to another level since being relieved of the captaincy and the burden of playing out of position. He is consistency personified.
Angus – Chris Robshaw – Described as the best blind side flanker in Europe by his international coach, Eddie Jones, Robshaw continues to improve with each game and has become a crucial cog in a successful England team. Robshaw never has a bad game, and although CJ Stander is playing a similar role for Ireland, Robshaw’s experience and reliability makes him the leading candidate.
Jack – CJ Stander – Has hoovered up Man of the Match awards for Munster over the last four seasons and has taken that strong form into an Irish jersey with a strong Six Nations campaign, a shortened summer thanks to Matheiu Reynal and an impressive November series against Australia and New Zealand. Gatland will most likely put Sam Warburton here but Stander has undoubtedly developed into one of the best backrowers in the world over the last two years.
Hamish – Maro Itoje – Not always a bline-side but no doubt a world-class player in the making, Itoje has been arguably the finest player in the northern hemisphere over the last 12 months. Superb around the pitch, brilliant in the lineout and a thorn in any oppositions side, he cannot be left out next summer! To truly utilise his abilities he must be given free reign on the blindside.
Alan – Sean O’Brien – Ahead of New Zealand’s clash with Ireland in Dublin, the kiwi media identified Sean O’Brien as one of the few Irish players the All Blacks should fear. Although he may have dropped the ball with the line at his mercy, O’Brien was nonetheless outstanding and can play across the backrow. Has to be included somewhere.
Paul – Sam Warburton – At his best Warburton is the best natural openside in the northern hemisphere and will cause the All Blacks a myriad of problems at the breakdown, an area that the Lions must dominate to gain any sort of edge in next summer’s series.
Angus – Sam Warburton – The 2013 captain has endured a mix bag since he led the Lions to victory against Australia. Constantly plagued by injuries and varying form, Warburton has been moved to blind side to accommodate Justin Tipuric many times for Wales, and many see Tipuric as the better option nowadays. However, Warburton was not captain in 2013 for nothing. In form he is one of the best openside flankers in the world. He has been there and done it for Wales and the Lions, and if Gatland can get the best out of him again, he will be undeniably useful against the All Blacks.
Jack – Sean O’Brien – Hard pencilling him into any team given his propensity to pick up injuries at a moment’s notice, but as seen in the Canada and New Zealand games last month, when O’Brien is on form and firing, there are few, if any openside flankers in the world that are better.
Hamish – Justin Tipuric – A tough call at open-side flanker- Tipuric just gets the nod. With pace, intelligence and an engine to match, Tipuric could prove to be one of the players of the tour next summer if we see him play to his full potential.
Alan – Sam Warburton – While he may not be enjoying his best run of form, Sam Warburton remains the best genuine openside available to Warren Gatland and is good enough to go toe-to-toe with either Sam Cane or Ardie Savea.
Paul – Billy Vunipola – An awesome ball carrier, often in the literal sense, Vunipola can bulldoze through even the best of defences and open up space the players around him, but he has deft handling skills that belie his physical presence.
Angus – Billy Vunipola – Over the past year, Billy Vunipola has become the best number eight in the world. Before the Jones era, many would have placed the likes of Kieran Reed, Taulupe Faletau and Jamie Heaslip over the Tongan born Saracen, but with the resurgence he has experienced for club and country, he has become arguably England’s most important player. He was nominated for World Player of the Year in 2016, and has cemented his status as a world-class operator. He is a no-brainer at the back of the scrum.
Jack – Jamie Heaslip – Would have had Billy Vunipola here if it wasn’t for his potentially season ending cartilage injury against Argentina last weekend, while Toby Faletau has only just returned from a knee injury which sidelined him for 10 weeks. With that said, Jamie Heaslip is not here by default. The Leinster number eight was exceptional for Ireland in 2016 and received a World Rugby Player of the Year nomination for his efforts. At 31, Heaslip is playing some of the best rugby of his career and should be in line to retain his number eight jersey from 2013.
Hamish – Toby Faletau – The hardest position to choose based on the sheer quality of the options, Faletau gets the nod over Heaslip and Billy Vunipola for his abilities in the lineout. A very clever number eight, Faletau uses as much of his brain as he does his brawn during a game and his decision making is always excellent. Vunipola is an exceptional impact sub from the bench.
Alan – Billy Vunipola – Jamie Heaslip may be playing superbly, but Billy Vunipola is a colossal threat at the base of the scrum. Just imagine the ball carrying potential O’Brien and Vunipola would have with Warburton tasked with clearing out.
Paul – Conor Murray – Murray faces stiff competition from Wales’ Rhys Webb and Gareth Davies, but the Irishman has everything in his game: superb delivery, an excellent boot, an ability to read the game and physical prowess to boot.
Angus – Conor Murray – Conor Murray is an incredibly intelligent scrum half and is definitely the best in Europe in his position. As well as having a very reliable kicking game whilst having immaculate hands, he has added a strong running game and improved his vision, evident with his try in Ireland’s victory over New Zealand earlier in November.
Jack – Conor Murray – Murray was a substitute on the 2013 tour but has since progressed into one of the world’s best number nines alongside TJ Perenara, his likely opponent next summer. Possesses a superb kicking game, is a strong runner, solid tackler and of course a very clean passer from the base of the ruck. Rhys Webb, Greg Laidlaw and Ben Youngs may challenge for a bench spot but the starting job should firmly belong to Murray.
Hamish – Conor Murray – His kicking game is just too good to leave out of the starting lineup. At scrum-half the Lions will be able to call on a lot of excellent options but Murray has the experience of beating the All Blacks now and key to that victory was his immensely accurate kicking game. His service from rucks and his running game are also very strong and he just gets the nod ahead of a fit Rhys Webb from me.
Alan – Conor Murray – Conor Murray saw off both Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara in a career defining performance against the All Blacks in Chicago. Despite being roughed up in the return fixture, the Irish scrum half bettered his much vaunted opponents for a second time.
Paul – Owen Farrell – Although Farrell is being played as a second five-eighth by England at the moment, the Lions have far more depth at 12 than the Red Rose currently possess. However, Farrell is the standout fly-half in European rugby and edges out the likes of George Ford, Jonny Sexton and Dan Biggar.
Angus – Owen Farrell – Another Englishman to make the list due to his new found world-class status. Owen Farrell is predominantly played as an inside centre, operating outside George Ford in England’s back line. His primary position is fly half, where he propelled Saracens to a domestic-European double last season. He will probably be named as a centre by Gatland in order to take Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar and possibly George Ford, but he is the best option by far, and if others are preferred in this position, he will no doubt be pushed over in to the centre.
Jack – George Ford – Would have penciled in Johnny Sexton here prior to last week’s news that the Irish fly-half may take an extended break away from rugby to concentrate on recovering from series of hamstring injuries. However, in Sexton’s absence, England’s George Ford is the clear successor and rightfully so. Ford has taken a big step forward under Eddie Jones and has developed into an elite international fly-half, and while he will face some competition from Finn Russell and Dan Biggar, Ford is still the pick of the bunch.
Hamish – George Ford – A world-class rugby mind and the best passer in the northern hemisphere. Ford see’s gaps and holes that no other fly-half in the British and Irish isles even knows are there. A true student of the game, he is the man with the abilities to unlock the All Blacks tight defence and can bring the best out of his team mates around him.
Alan – George Ford – With the pressure of being the primary kicking option lifted off his shoulders, George Ford has been given the freedom to demonstrate his footballing talents in the number ten jersey. Although Ford might not be a quintessential Gatland type player, he offers more creativity than his rivals.
Paul – George North – He might not be in the sparkling form of his first few years of international rugby, but North is a unique player at test level and provided a much-needed point of difference on the last Lions tour and is the most suited to Gatland’s style of rugby.
Angus – George North – Remember when George North lit up the Lions tour in 2013 with a series of brilliant and mesmerizing displays, including his magical try in the first test? He still has that ability, in fact, when he’s at his best; he is one of the most devastating wingers in world rugby. He needs a good Six Nations, as others may have overtaken him in the pecking order this year, but I’m certain that Gatland would not be so bold to leave such a player at home.
Jack – Liam Williams – A gifted runner and a very intelligent rugby player, Williams has developed into one of Wales best players over the last two seasons and was a standout performer on Wales’ summer tour of New Zealand. Adept at both wing and fullback, the Saracens bound outside back has a brilliant step and has no discernible weakness in his game. Should push very hard for a place in Gatland’s starting XV.
Hamish – Liam Williams – Plucky, resilient and a true competitor. Williams was possibly the only player who was not a Kiwi to really impress during Wales’ tour to New Zealand this summer. Although normally a fullback he is a strong finisher and a great option on the wing as his defensive work and ability to take a high ball under intense pressure will be of great value to the Lions.
Alan – Liam Williams – Liam Williams came away from Wales’ tour of New Zealand in the summer with a great deal of credit and only added to his gorwing reputation this autumn. A brilliant broken field runner and counter attacker, Williams can offer penetration against what will be an aggressive All Black defence.
Paul – Robbie Henshaw – The Ireland centre was outstanding in the victory over the All Blacks and his physicality and defensive skills will be needed to contain the firepower of New Zealand’s likely fly-half and centre combination.
Angus – Robbie Henshaw – Ireland’s go to inside centre has become a big player for Ireland following his move from Connacht to Leinster. His flexibility in his game play with his hard running and good hands see him as a constant threat to opposition defences. He is the kind of centre that will really trouble the All Blacks in attack, busting holes through their defence with the wide men waiting to pounce.
Jack – Owen Farrell – Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies will be included in the squad, while Robbie Henshaw could push for a spot in the matchday 23, but realistically the starting spot belongs to Farrell. The Saracens playmaker has performed brilliantly alongside George Ford in the English backline after the two initially struggled to co-exist. The pair are now among the finest 10-12 axis in world rugby and should reprise their combination in red as well as white next year.
Hamish – Owen Farrell – When you have a good thing, why ruin it? England certainly appear to have a good thing in the Ford-Farrell axis and with two excellent distributors the Lions can stretch the All Blacks and get the best out of the strike runners. He is also arguably the most accurate test goal kicker in the world which when push comes to shove, can be the difference between a test series win or not. Robbie Henshaw will be a superb alternative should the Lions go with a more traditional inside centre option.
Alan – Owen Farrell – Having selected Ford at fly-half, logic dictates that you partner him alongside Owen Farrell at inside centre. The Saracens player has added a cutting edge to his game in the last twelve months, attacking the gainline and freezing defenders to create space for others. There might be other options available, but few are better.
Paul – Elliot Daly – One foolish challenge in the air aside, Daly is a gifted runner of the ball and lethal in even the smallest amount of space afforded to him. Plus, his powerful long-range boot could be useful in the white hot intensity of a Lions series decider.
Angus – Jonathan Joseph – Whilst heralded for his attacking skills earlier in his career, and racking up four tries in the 2015 Six Nations, he has become a defensive rock in England’s back row, enjoying a huge series against Australia and a brilliant performance against Argentina when England were down to 14 men for 70 minutes. Alongside Henshaw, who can focus on the attacking side of things, and with Farrell inside him not shying away from defensive duties, Joseph completes a midfield that compliments each other with a perfect balance.
Jack – Jonathan Joseph – Was dropped for the first time in his England career earlier this month against South Africa, but has proven to be the best outside centre in Europe over the last two seasons. Blessed with a strong fend, great pace and an eye for a gap, Joseph should be the favourite to succeed Brian O’Driscoll as the Lions new number 13 after the Leinster centre held the jersey for 12 years between 2001 and 2013. Jared Payne, Mark Bennett, Elliot Daly and Jonathan Davies will all challenge for a starting spot, but Joseph should edge them when it comes to test selection.
Hamish – Jonathan Davies – Not in his finest form for Wales right now, Davies is still a superb option at outside centre. Perhaps lacking the players inside him to see his best at Welsh level right now, Davies is still a top 13 on his day and gives the Lions a serious ball carrier in the backs when the going gets tough. A stocky man, his defence is good, his ability to kick is useful, and when used properly he can be a great linebreaker and link man in the backline. Imperative to the Lions success will be his ability to carry when they need a back to get them over the gainline.
Alan – Robbie Henshaw – Not only has Robbie Henshaw the physicality to deal with whatever the All Blacks send his way, but a raw footballing ability going forward. Having spent much of his early career playing at fullback, he has an appreciation for attacking space and can offload out of the tackle.
Paul – Anthony Watson – A brilliant finisher, an intelligent player and one of England’s most consistent players since making his debut in 2014. Watson is the sort of attacking threat that could thrive in the pressure cooker that is a Lions series in New Zealand.
Angus – Anthony Watson – Watson was labeled the best finisher in Europe after scoring four tries in four tests earlier in 2016. He did not see as many opportunities in Australia and was unfortunately injured for the Autumn Internationals. He is a huge player for England whilst fit and has been compared to Jason Robinson due to his quick feet and scoring capability.
Jack – Tommy Seymour – The Pro 12’s leading try scorer and one of the form wingers in Europe at present, Seymour is a world class finisher and will give the Lions a serious set of wheels on the outside. Averaged over 7.5 metres per carry during the November internationals and should be given strong consideration for a starting spot next summer. However, the Lions are stacked at wing so it really is a pick em’ here.
Hamish – Anthony Watson – Imperious in the air, deadly in space and solid defensively. Watson gives the Lions multiple attacking options and his ability in the kick-chase could be key in putting the All Blacks under pressure.
Alan – Anthony Watson – Put simply, Anthony Watson is the best finisher in the northern hemisphere and cannot be left out of the side.
Paul – Stuart Hogg – One of the game’s great fullbacks, Hogg has pace, footwork and agility that mean he can consistently conjure up something from nothing. Second-to-none under the high ball and a rock at the back, Hogg has to start against New Zealand if in form.
Angus – Stuart Hogg – The Player of the Six Nations 2016 was brilliant against Georgia last week, continuing a very impressive season of international rugby. With Leigh Halfpenny not hitting the heights of previous years, Liam Williams is probably the closest to challenging Hogg, but with Hogg starting at full back for Scotland and being arguably their best player, Williams’ lack of game time at the back for his country sees Hogg complete my Lions team.
Jack – Stuart Hogg – Hogg was the youngest player on the 2013 tour and has had his name etched in this bracket for the last couple of years now. Has been electric for both Glasgow and Scotland this year and has easily been the form fullback among the home nations sides for the last three years. The only Scottish player that will be a clear front runner for a starting spot in my opinion.
Hamish – Stuart Hogg – The talisman of Scottish rugby must be picked and played in his correct position this tour. After going on tour as a backup fly-half option during the 2013 tour, Hogg must be handed the 15 shirt and told to go and play his natural game. On his day he is electric with footwork, power and pace to burn, he is the closest thing to a Ben Smith the northern hemisphere has.
Alan – Stuart Hogg – Scotland’s Stuart Hogg has consistently been the best fullback in the northern hemisphere for a number of seasons, and can exploit any gap or misplaced clearance kick.
By Kaal Kaczmarek
15. Ben Smith – Ben Smith is simply irreplaceable and hopefully All Black bosses realise this and a fresh contract with plenty of zeros is drawn up for next season. His skills, vision and decision making are second to none and it is no coincidence that since his debut in 2009, the All Blacks have held the number 1 world ranking. He scored eight tries in the 2016 season, just behind Israel Dagg and Beauden Barrett, and topped both of them in defenders beaten.
14. Nehe Milner-Skudder – NMS lit up the 2015 World Cup with his breath-taking step, pace and skills and won the IRB Breakthrough Player of the Year title. A serious shoulder injury ruled him out of almost the entire 2016 season and New Zealand fans have waited with baited breath for medical updates on his Twitterfeed. Has scored eight tries in as many games against top drawer opposition and has that something a bit special (a la Beauden Barrett) which makes it seem he is running on clouds rather than grassblades at times.
13. Anton Lienert-Brown – Easily the biggest mover up the All Black pecking order in 2016, ALB has a sensational offloading game which led to setting up seven tries during the season. The 21-year-old is also blessed with a strong running and defensive game which didn’t buckle in his first year of international rugby. The prospect of him teaming up the other famous offloading acronym below is more than exciting.
12. Sonny Bill Williams – Sonny Bill Williams is simply a legendary athlete who rises to any occasion (in any sport) and succeeds. Injured during the Rio Olympics, his All Black season was curtailed, but the injury may have been a blessing as it has allowed the hardworking giant to freshen up mentally and physically. Now a father of two, SBW seems at peace with the world, and is ready to turn it on once more on the highest stage. With the blinding pace of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith running off his shoulder, his offloads have the potential to wreak havoc on the Lions.
11. Israel Dagg – Let’s hope Izzy resists the lure of Southern France, rejects the red Toulon shirt and remains in the Black for another season as he is in the peak form of his career. Top tryscorer of the All Black season, highest in running metres and clean breaks, he has shown incredible versatility moving to the right wing from fullback, so much so, in fact that we think he could swap again to the left wing and move ‘the Bus’ Julian Savea to be parked at the station.
10. Beauden Barrett – There is not too much left to say about Beauden Barrett in 2016. Simply one of the greatest individual seasons in modern rugby history and if he is allowed in the sandpit to play with this multi-skilled backline, the highlights for 2017 may be even better. He still needs to gain consistency in his place-kicking but showed signs (with a 93% success rate) during the northern tour that the final puzzle piece to his game is coming together nicely. Whoever the Lions choose to oppose Barrett, while they may be more accurate kickers, there is no more devastating runner than Barrett in world rugby.
9. TJ Perenara – TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett’s games both caught fire at the same time in the same team in 2016. As a pairing, their pace and skills were electrifying and led to the Wellington Hurricanes finally breaking their Super Rugby hoodoo and winning the title. Probably the best support runner in the game, TJ’s pass is snappier and his decision-making is more mature than it has been in previous seasons, when he tended to be afflicted with white line fever. His final game of the year was a personal triumph, being selected ahead of Aaron Smith to be the All Blacks starting halfback. Expect a right royal battle between these two fierce competitors for this position in 2017.
8. Kieran Read – Kieran Read’s game transformed in 2016. As forwards like Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick became more expressive and expansive, Read turned inward, becoming a defensive rock with the most tackles in 2016 and the main target for lineout throws. In real need of some feet-up time and mental space away from the media glare, this writer predicts a big season ahead for the All Black captain. The number eight position is one where Steve Hansen will need more depth in the coming season.
7. Ardie Savea/Sam Cane – The vaunted no.7 jersey was worn and played in with industry and skill last season, without any player really taking ownership of it in the same way as Richie McCaw and Michael Jones did. Sam Cane seemed most likely but, after a strong Super Rugby season, he was injury prone again and this hindered his form and momentum. Ardie Savea had a blockbusting Super Rugby campaign, and perhaps the season was too long and physically demanding for a player not used to such sustained battering at the highest level.
6. Jerome Kaino/Liam Squire – Jerome Kaino is 33 and in his 83 caps has played a brutal, athletic game. His workload will need to be shared so Liam Squire will no doubt be his blindside ally after impressing with his pace, industry and skills on the northern tour. Will Kaino make it to the 2019 World Cup? Brad Thorn played in the 2011 World Cup in his mid-thirties, and Kaino showed he still had plenty of zip in the early rounds of the Rugby Championship.
5. Sam Whitelock – Like Israel Dagg, Sam Whitelock does not get the kudos he deserves due to the flashier players (Retallick and Coles) around him. But his hard-nosed defense was missed against the Irish in Chicago, and there is a noticeable gap between Whitelock and Retallick and the next tall timbers off the pine. Vital for the All Blacks’ chances that these two are present in starting jerseys.
4. Brodie Retallick – Retallick doesn’t seem to get tired or worn down during a season. One of his best games was the return match against the Irish in Dublin, and it is remarkable that he has amassed 60 caps and is only 25. Expect a right royal battle between him and Whitelock and the strong group of locks the Lions will choose from. The prospect of Retallick vs Itoje is simply mouthwatering.
3. Owen Franks – Franks had a bell curve of a season, running into some real form mid-season, with his sudden awakening of a running game. However, this seemed to disappear during the northern tour and although his scrummaging was rock solid, he and Joe Moody came into some criticism for missing several tackles, particularly against France.
2. Dane Coles – Dane Coles was nominated for 2016 IRB Player of the Year and lost to his Hurricanes teammate Barrett. If there is any justice, Coles will receive one of these gongs before he retires, as he has revolutionised the hooker position with his outrageous midfield running in combination with his exemplary performance in his core line-throwing and scrummaging duties. He brings an advantage to the All Blacks in this position.
1. Joe Moody – Joe Moody had discipline problems with his tackling on the Northern tour but his scrummaging power is obviously adequate compensation for Steve Hansen. He doesn’t lack industry in his tackling, but we are still waiting to see the ridiculous one-handed backward offload he threw in his debut against France, when he was called in late to the squad as an injury replacement. Perhaps, jet lag has the opposite effect on props?
(N.B. – In the event of a tiebreaker, a vote will be put to staff to decide a winner. Alternatively if it’s the same position (i.e. wing or second-row) votes will be counted across both positions.)