With the British and Irish Lions squad now in the public domain and the captain revealed to be Sam Warburton, thoughts quickly turn to who will start the first Test against New Zealand on June 24.
Warren Gatland’s announcement on Wednesday handily whittled down the options to 41 players, making the job of those attempting to second-guess his Test team selection that little bit easier.
Injuries in tour matches and training could yet be a factor come June, but here’s how we think Gatland’s Lions could line up in Auckland.
15. Stuart Hogg
Hogg is one of only two Scots in the entire squad, but, after being named Six Nations Player of the Championship for the second year running, the full-back looks likely to be part of Gatland’s Test team.
14. George North
The Northampton Saints wing has not been in the best form of late and came in for plenty of flack during a disappointing Six Nations with Wales. However, he was a Lion in 2013 and Gatland knows him well, so that could play in his favour when the team is selected.
13. Jonathan Davies
Jonathan Joseph – eventually included in Gatland’s squad – had been tipped to start at centre, but the strength of rumours that he may not make the tour at all suggest he is not such a sure bet. Davies, meanwhile, has been a mainstay for Gatland’s Wales team, racking up 64 caps since making his debut in 2009 and playing all three Lions Tests in Australia four years ago.
12. Owen Farrell
Selected as a fly-half, but Farrell’s performances at centre for England mean he is surely in pole position for the Lions’ 12 shirt. Why choose between Farrell and Jonathan Sexton when you can accommodate both in the same XV?
11. Liam Williams
There are plenty of candidates to occupy the Lions wings, with Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Tommy Seymour also on tour, but Williams – as with North – is well-known to Gatland and is capable of providing the spark to unlock opposition defences.
10. Jonathan Sexton
Gatland has talked up the competition for selection at fly-half and said Dan Biggar is very much in the frame, along with Sexton and Farrell. But it is the Irish 10 who looks most likely to get the nod, particularly if international colleague Conor Murray is chosen at scrum-half.
9. Conor Murray
Murray has been challenged by Gatland to prove his fitness after suffering a neck injury against Wales in March that continues to trouble him, but, if fit, he leads the race for the number-nine jersey. If Murray is unable to recover in time, Rhys Webb and Ben Youngs are waiting in the wings.
1. Mako Vunipola
Vunipola, like brother Billy, has been troubled by injuries of late, but was an important part of England’s unbeaten run of 18 matches. Could miss out if Gatland opts for an all-Irish front row and includes Jack McGrath.
2. Rory Best
Best is the only man to captain a team to victory over the All Blacks since August 2015, with Ireland having halted New Zealand’s record-breaking winning run in Chicago in November. One of a group of leaders in the Lions squad, Best ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to Test selection.
3. Tadhg Furlong
Along with Best, Furlong was part of a strong Irish scrum during the Six Nations. Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree said of the prop: “He quietly goes about his business; he’s an exceptional scrummager, but he gets his hands on the ball higher than many other tighthead props.”
4. Maro Itoje
Itoje is one of the most exciting talents in northern-hemisphere rugby and the Saracens lock was considered a guaranteed Lions pick by many. After spending the Six Nations in England’s back row, a return to the second row could bring the best out of Itoje in New Zealand.
5. Alun Wyn Jones
Another of Gatland’s leaders, Jones’ experience will complement the youth and relative inexperience of Itoje. Jones has played in every Test on each of the last two Lions tours, and you wouldn’t rule out that he could repeat that feat again this year.
6. CJ Stander
One of the standout performers of the Six Nations, Ireland’s Stander was the most prolific ball carrier of the championship. He also became the first forward to score a hat-trick in the competition since 1962 when he crossed for three tries in Italy.
7. Sam Warburton (Captain)
After stepping down as Wales captain in January, Warburton returns to the role of skipper with the Lions, becoming only the second man to lead the tourists twice as he follows in the footsteps of Martin Johnson. Having played with renewed freedom during the Six Nations, Warburton will hope the added responsibility does not adversely affect his form.
8. Billy Vunipola
The younger Vunipola only returned to fitness at the back end of the Six Nations, scoring from the bench against Scotland before starting in the defeat to Ireland in the final round of fixtures. A fighting fit Vunipola has to start for the Lions.
— Standard Life Invest (@SLI_Global) April 19, 2017