Position by position: The Lions places on the line this weekend
It is not just Wales who go into this weekend of the Guinness Six Nations with a lot to play for as there are British and Irish Lions places available.
Warren Gatland has been one of the few spectators at many of the matches this year, and he would have seen players burst into his list of contenders, while others may have fallen out of contention.
But for Wales, England and Ireland, this is the final weekend of Test rugby before the Lions squad is announced, while Scotland have another match with France soon, which could actually be the most defining for the Scottish hopefuls.
So these are the players that need big weekends:
LOOSEHEAD PROP: Assuming there are three loosehead prop spaces up for grabs, Mako Vunipola and Wyn Jones look to be winning the race for two of the spots. A solid display against the French pack in the loose and in the scrum would surely secure a place for the Welshman. That leaves Rory Sutherland and Ellis Genge as two of the frontrunners for the final space.
TIGHTHEAD PROP: Kyle Sinckler and Tadhg Furlong look to be shoo-ins for this summer. Tomas Francis’s chance depends on his performance against France, which is the same next week for Zander Fagerson. That could be the determining factor for those two, although Andrew Porter will be hoping for a strong performance from the bench against England.
Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson can make a statement this weekend in Ryan’s absence, and a strong performance against England upfront could tip it for them. Beirne has been a standout this Championship and his ability to cover No6 is a huge boon.
OPENSIDE FLANKER: This has been a Championship of openside flankers, with Hamish Watson, Tom Curry and Justin Tipuric performing at superhuman levels. Gatland will not want to take too many No7s, particularly against an imposing Springboks pack, but it would be very unfortunate if one of these three does not get picked.
Given Tipuric’s history with Gatland and Curry’s growing influence on England, Watson may be third on this list, but the Englishman’s ability to cover No6 may mean all three go.
Now that Sam Underhill has returned from injury, he will exert some pressure while playing for Bath, meaning any slipup for these No7s could be damaging.
BLINDSIDE FLANKER: It’s hard to know how many specialist No6s will be picked this year given the ability of Itoje and Beirne to move into the back row, on top of No8s shifting to the flank.
The two leading candidates to go currently are Josh Navidi, who could all but seal his place if he fronts up against a bruising French pack, and Jamie Ritchie, who has the opportunity to do the same in the postponed fixture (although he is a slightly different player to Navidi).
Peter O’Mahony on his return from suspension will need to pull out all the stops against England in order to force his way into the reckoning given the competition on offer.
No8: Taulupe Faletau seems guaranteed to be selected this summer based on his form and relationship with Gatland. There may be one more space for a specialist No8, and should Billy Vunipola continue his resurgence in form, he may take it. Though it is do or die for the Englishman, as he will have little or no rugby to influence Gatland after the Six Nations with Saracens in the second tier in England. He did not look up to scratch at the beginning of February but looked to be nearing his best against France.
CJ Stander will surely play like half-man, half-beast for the remaining months of his career, and starting at No6 against England shows his versatility across the back row. Scotland’s Matt Fagerson is equally comfortable on the flank, but is probably fourth in the pecking order.
Sam Simmonds is applying pressure from Exeter, the latter two in particular need big weekends.
SCRUM-HALF: A position where nothing is set in stone with plenty of players in contention for what could be three places. Ben Youngs will want another impressive display this weekend, particularly against his long time rival Conor Murray, who is in even greater need of a big performance after struggling for form.
FLY-HALF: Owen Farrell, Finn Russell and Dan Biggar are the frontrunners to land the three fly-half spots, but that does not mean Jonathan Sexton and George Ford cannot make a statement in Dublin, particularly with Farrell as an option at centre. It is likely that the winning fly-half could take a major step towards a Lions spot.
CENTRE: Eliot Daly’s switch to outside centre this weekend could be the boost he needs after falling down the pecking order in the back three. He, like George North at No13, can prove his versatility and help his chances, possibly at the expense of his injured teammate Henry Slade.
Elsewhere, Bundee Aki has one chance to impress with Garry Ringrose injured, as his physicality in the midfield is always desirable, although Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw are probably ahead of him amongst Irish players.
Jonathan Davies could take a big step to his third tour with a commanding performance in Paris, particularly in his less favoured role at inside centre. Davies and Ringrose are possibly the only nailed on selections, and with Manu Tuilagi returning soon, this is a huge week for centres.
WING / FULLBACK: It is hard to know how many spaces in the back three will be up for grabs with players being picked as centres or not. But Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams are all but certainly picked, as are Josh Adams and Jonny May. Louis-Rees Zammit has bulldozed his way into contention this year and Anthony Watson’s form is picking up at the right time.
That leaves very few spaces left, if any. Duhan van der Merwe will need huge performances against Italy and France to catch Gatland’s eye. The Irish back three will also need something monumental, although there is a chance for the returning Jacob Stockdale should he capture his form of 2018.
Did anyone else spot this? https://t.co/hVM99MmDgA
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 19, 2021
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