Which Lions Will Roar in New Zealand?
It’s time. With just a few hours to go until Warren Gatland announces his 37-man touring party to take on New Zealand, the wait is finally coming to an end. Rumours have been rife and despite a leak making it onto a BBC Sport article, every man and his dog have wanted to have their say as to who will make the cut.
Since the 6 Nations begun, debate has swirled around Performance Towers, and I’m sure there will be many disagreements with the side I’ve picked. The fact of the matter is, with performances of the last two years, the squad must and will be dominated by England and Ireland, with a smattering of Welsh and Scottish players.
However, it must be noted that New Zealand have only scored less than 20 points on 4 occasions in the last 5 years, and Ireland’s famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016 required 40 points to beat them… We’re going to need to attack.
- English: 15
- Irish: 10
- Welsh: 8
- Scottish: 2
Props – Furlong (IRE), McGrath (IRE), Cole (ENG), Sinckler (ENG), Mako Vunipola (ENG), Marler (ENG)
The front row should and will be dominated by Ireland and England following the success of both of their scrums of late. In fact, Furlong and McGrath would be my starting props due to their astonishing stat of winning 100% of their own scrums in the 2017 6 Nations. Cole and Marler would make a formidable midweek team partnership, whilst Kyle Sinckler is my main ‘bolter’ of the squad as he has one thing which many props lack – pace, and heaps of it. He’d be a useful and unknown weapon off the bench against tiring legs.
Hookers – Hartley (ENG), George (ENG), Best (IRE)
This is a tough position to call – I know Gatland is a fan of Ken Owens and Dylan Hartley may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his stats speak for themselves. He has the best lineout percentages in the 6 Nations, is incredibly solid in the scrum, and captained England to a record-equalling 18 wins in a row. His set piece-solidity (94% lineout success in the 6 Nations) just edges him in front of Best (the only hooker below 90% with 87%) for me in the test team, with the pace and handling skills in the loose of the impressive Saracen Jamie George coming off the bench.
Second row – Itoje (ENG), Launchbury (ENG), Lawes (ENG), AW Jones (WAL), J.Gray (SCO)
The one position where the Lions are blessed with a plethora of genuinely world-class talent, where some very talented players will have to miss out due to the size of the squad. Despite a disappointing 6 Nations, Alun Wyn Jones’ leadership scrapes him in ahead of George Kruis who would be a certainty to be on the plane if it weren’t for an unfortunate injury that ruled him out for most of this season. Itoje, Launchbury and Lawes would fight it out for a starting place in my test team, with Jonny Gray making his way into the squad for a series of impressive performances for Glasgow and Scotland over the season.
Flankers – Warburton (WAL), Stander (IRE), O’Mahony (IRE), O’Brien (IRE), Tipuric (WAL)
I’ve gone for a blend of different styled players to cover all eventualities – Warburton and Tipuric are genuine poachers who can get over the ball, the power of CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien in the tackle and the loose, and the vastly underrated Peter O’Mahony as a specialist lineout jumper to shore up the set piece.
Number 8 – Billy Vunipola (ENG), Faletau (WAL)
This area picks itself – it remains to be seen if Gatland will find a way to play both Vunipola and Faletau, but here we have 2 world class number 8s with both explosive carrying power and soft hands.
Scrum half – Murray (IRE), Webb (WAL), Youngs (ENG)
Once again, for many this area picks itself – Murray will start at 9 for his control kicking game and partnership with Sexton, with the sniping and pace of Welshman Webb creating havoc off the bench. Ben Youngs provides cover for both of these options, again being a strong midweek option.
Fly half – Sexton (IRE), Ford (ENG), Biggar (WAL)
Pure and simple, Ireland’s Jonny Sexton will be the starting 10 for the Lions if fit – Ford’s superior game management gives him the nod over the flashy Finn Russell, whose defensive performance against England this 6 Nations may have played himself out of a place. With Farrell another option at 10 despite looking likely to be picked as a centre, the final 10 spot is tricky. However I’ve gone with the safe & controlling option of Dan Biggar to provide an alternative to Ford in the midweek side.
Centres – Farrell (ENG), Joseph (ENG), Henshaw (IRE), Ringrose (IRE)
Whilst I think it is likely that Gatland will pick the Welshman Jonathan Davies as one of his options at centre, I’d go with the more creative and pacey options above. Henshaw is a great crash ball options, and his partnership with Ringrose has been very impressive for Ireland despite having to replace the longstanding partnership of Gordon Darcy and Brian O’Driscoll for Ireland. Farrell is a shoe-in at 12 for the starting team, whilst I would pick the electric footwork and impressive rush defence of Joseph at 13.
Back 3 – Hogg (SCO), L.Williams (WAL), Watson (ENG), Daly (ENG), North (WAL), Seymour (SCO)
This is an area where the Lions are not blessed with as many high-class options as previous years – despite defensive frailties you cannot ignore Stuart Hogg’s attacking potency from full-back, whilst Liam Williams has been impressive for a faltering Wales side. Elliot Daly similarly has blossomed into a highly capable international class player and offers a strong kicking option (and another option at centre), whilst the power of North cannot be ignored. The versatility of Watson nudges him ahead of others, along with Scotland’s Tommy Seymour being good midweek/bench options.
With so little time to prepare and for combinations to gel, I’ve picked a Test XV with combinations that already exist at international level to give the Lions a fighting chance, along with an exciting back 3. Dylan Hartley would be my captain, with Alun Wyn Jones’ leadership off the bench if he is replaced.
16: Jamie George (ENG)
17: Mako Vunipola (ENG)
18: Kyle Sinckler (ENG)
19: Alun Wyn Jones (WAL)
20: Peter O’Mahony (IRE)
21: Rhys Webb (Wales)
22: Robbie Henshaw (IRE)
23: Liam Williams (WAL)