The 2017 Six Nations is a five match audition for the top players from the home countries to impressive upon British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland, their credentials for selection for the summer tour of New Zealand.
Many veterans of the 2013 tour of Australia have already put their hands up and are veritable shoo-ins for their place on the plane.
The likes of Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies and Stuart Hogg are all safe in the knowledge that provided they remain fit, they will be lining out against the mighty All Blacks at some stage this summer.
For many of the rest, the Six Nations will give hopefuls the chance to prove themselves worthy of another tilt in the famous red jersey.
Since the successful 2013 tour, the next generation of the rugby elite has emerged and now, they too will be vying for their first experience as a Lion.
With that in mind, based on current Six Nations performances, here is ‘First Tour’ British and Irish Lions XV.
Returning from a broken leg in time for the championship, Marler has owned the loosehead spot from day one. The 26-year-old will likely challenge for a spot in Gatland’s squad outright.
The old man of the first timers at 30, Owens has been in fine form for Wales. Having faced the All Blacks before, he is all too aware of the challenge that awaits this summer.
‘The Jukebox’ has made the tighthead spot his own for Ireland . The All Blacks will be acutely aware of his capabilities, having been part of the Ireland side that handed them their first defeat in 19 games back in November. Despite only having 14 caps for Ireland, Furlong will almost certainly be made a Lion by Gatland next month.
Part of England’s dominating second row, Launchbury walks into the ‘First Tour’ XV. With the likes of Courtney Lawes, Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan, Jonny and Richie Gray and Alun Wyn Jones to compete with for Gatland’s actual squad, the 26-year-old needs to maintain his current form for club and country.
Like his second row partner Launchbury, Lawes faces stiff competition in the hunt for Lions selection. However, with a penchant for big hits, the physical and rangy lock could well find himself on the plane in June.
Stander has become one of the top blindside flankers in world rugby and is a shoo-in for the summer tour. With 69 carries already in the Six Nations and with 160 metres made, the South Africa born Irishman is an absolute weapon. Like Furlong, he also tasted victory over the All Blacks in November.
The Fiji born England No.8 has made the position his own since bursting onto the scene in November. Leading the statistics in the championship so far, Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip will have a run for his money for a starting spot in the Lions XV. Hughes’ inexperience however, will likely see him play understudy to Heaslip, if selected.
Having missed the 2015 Rugby World Cup through injury, Webb returned in 2016 for the Six Nations and has not let go of the Wales No.9 jersey since. Certainly a name in the mix along with Conor Murray and Ben Youngs.
In the absence of Johnny Sexton in the opening two rounds, Jackson showed his true credentials, with assured performances against Scotland and Italy. His nine from nine conversion rate against Italy equaled the tournament record, held by England and Lions legend Jonny Wilkinson.
Williams is an experienced international and at 26, is primed for a call up to Gatland’s squad. Competition from Owen Farrell and Robbie Henshaw will likely see this selection go down to the wire.
While competition from Jonathan Davies and Jonathan Joseph could push Ringrose out of contention in Gatland’s squad, the youngest of the ‘First Tour’ XV cannot be ruled out. Despite having only earned six caps to date for Ireland, he was on the bench for the All Blacks victory in November and was a try scorer in Ireland’s win over Australia in the same series. Comparisons to the great Brian O’Driscoll have been made.
One of the form wingers of the tournament to date, Daly looks set to shake up the ranks out on the wings. With Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, George North, Liam Williams, Jack Nowell, Sean Maitland and more all vying for a place on the plane south, right now Daly is looking good for a ticket.
Like Daly, Williams is in blistering form this tournament and has put himself in the mix for a first tour with the Lions. With competition fierce, neither he nor any of the other contenders can afford a bad game between and when the squad is selected next month.
Brown faces stiff competition for a first Lions tour this summer. Despite being one of the form full-backs for the last three seasons, the presence of Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg will make it very hard to break into Gatland’s panel.
Player form was supported by The Rugby Net.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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