With the Six nations finishing with a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating final round of fixtures, the dust now begins to settle and all talk has already turned to who Warren Gatland will pick for the upcoming Lions tour of New Zealand.
At this stage, and with Gatland set to name his squad in under a month, it seems reasonable to think that he will have his mind made up about a number of players provided they can stay fit and healthy. However, rather than look at the obvious picks on the back of the Six Nations, it seems more intriguing to discuss those outsiders who are on his radar but still have yet to cement their place on the plane to New Zealand.
England: George Kruis
Despite a shaky showing in the final round of games against Ireland, the English lineout was exceptional throughout the Six nations in both a platform to attack from and a means for stealing opposition ball. With England’s strength in depth in this position with the likes of Itoje and Launchbury, it would be easy to forget just how much Kruis brought to the English pack.
While Kruis is not quite as explosive and eye-catching as his Saracens teammate Itoje, he is an exceptional athlete and very good as both a lineout jumper and also as a caller for both club and country. In last year’s Six nations Kruis led the stats for the competition with 33 clean takes and was a constant danger for the opposition ball – this combined with his physicality and work rate around the pitch very much puts him in the frame.
Warren Gatland even went as far as name checking Kruis on his appearance on Sky Sports this week highlighting his chances; this combined with the fact he is likely to be challenging for domestic and European success with Saracens and playing alongside likely Lion Itoje every week will make Kruis hard to leave out even if he did miss the entire Six nations.
Scotland: WP Nel
After a phenomenal November and Six Nations Tadhg Furlong seems nailed on in most peoples minds to be first choice tighthead for the Lions. However, that may not mean there won’t be room for Nel also. Like Kruis, Nel was also mentioned by Gatland in his recent interview as a man who could come back into the frame for selection if his form over the final weeks of the season warrants it.
Nel finds himself in something of a fortunate position as unlike in the back row there aren’t an abundance of top class tightheads available to Gatland. Furlong is all but nailed on, Dan Cole is likely to join him having toured before and had a reasonable Six nations, Zander Fagerson has potential although lacks experience and had some difficult days in the scrum against more seasoned opponents and the Welsh scrum was often targeted much like France did in Paris leaving Nel in a good position to play himself into the frame.
The primary strength of the Edinburgh man is his scrummaging and if the Lions are to attack the All Blacks’ tight five as expected Nel could be a key man in leading that assault.
Ireland: Jared Payne
Despite playing just one game in the Six Nations and being out with a serious kidney injury for the last number of months Payne is a player who is worthy of selection consideration at the very least.
Payne has been one of Joe Schmidt’s most trusted generals since making his debut for Ireland often being cited by his coach as being the key defensive leader and coordinator in the Irish team. He showed in just 80 minutes how important he is to Ireland and also could be to the Lions in his native country this summer.
His ability to step in at first receiver and act as a playmaker from there when Sexton wasn’t in place added a layer of danger to the Irish attack while his offloading and ability to find space and beat players on his kick returns could be two vital components if the Lions attack is to stretch and trouble the New Zealand defence. Payne’s ability to cover both the centre and fullback also add to his value on what is sure to be a tour with a high attrition rate.
Wales: Ken Owens
Owens may seem something of a more obvious pick due to his amount of exposure in the Six Nations unlike the other players on our list. However, he remains far from a certainty due to the other players battling for the hooker spots on the plane.
With three specialist hookers set to travel Owens’ chances seem somewhat hampered by the fact that both the English and Irish team captain’s share his position. This along with the challenge posed by dynamic impact players like Jamie George and even Sean Cronin means Owens’ task of getting a seat on the plane is far from an easy one.
The Welsh hooker was arguably the most consistent of the those in his position from the home nations throughout the tournament complimenting his lineout throwing with a solid work ethic around the field.
While not a certainty to travel this summer, a fine Six Nations campaign has very much put the Scarlets man in the mix and no doubt Warren Gatland will be watching his performances very closely over the next number of weeks.
Andrew Byrne, Pundit Arena
[gravityform id=”1″ title=”true” description=”true”]