Sometime in the next 24 hours Warren Gatland will name 37 players who will make up his British & Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand in June and July. Here are Lee Calvert’s predictions as to what those names will be*.
The Six Nations was dominated by three packs: England, Ireland and France. Unless the Lions eligibility rules have changed significantly, the French lads are ruled out, so expect the props to be mainly hailing from the other two. Mako Vunipola is a shoo-in at loosehead, as is Tadgh Furlong on the other side. After that, the picture becomes less clear. The choices are many: England’s Joe Marler and Dan Cole, Ireland’s Jack McGrath, Scotland’s WP Nel (if fit) and Wales’s Rob Evans and Samson Lee all have a shout. Word on the street is that Gatland has been impressed by young England tyro Kyle Sinckler’s pace and impact in his fledgling career.
Fairly easy picks here, with the likely shock (if you can call it that) being that the England captain Dylan Hartley will miss out. Hartley keeps his England place because he’s captain, not because he’s the best hooker – that title is clearly Jamie George’s. Ken Owens had a huge Six Nations for Wales, Rory Best will bring experience and Scotland’s hookers are rubbish.
Bringing four national teams together means added quality and this is most evident in the second row. England players alone could arguably take all the tour spots and very few could make an argument against it on form alone. But Gatland loves Alun Wyn Jones in a very real way because of his talent and experience and there is no conceivable situation where he does not tour.
But the list of names and their form and class is dizzying and some seriously good players will be left at home: Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis, Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner, Alun Wyn Jones, Jonny Gray are all worthy. That’s ten names yet only five will go on tour. Gatland will need the perfect mix of grunt, power, dynamism and savvy to match the towering All Black engine room, for this reason, the mix will lean towards more mobile, all-rounder locks.
Another area where Gatland will have spent many hours deciding which top player to leave out. The back row will be based around two definite starters: Sam Warburton, who is odds-on to be captain, and Billy Vinupola, the wrecking ball carrier. Beyond those two there are again a litany of quality names to chew over: Scotland’s judo hand-off merchant Hamish Watson, Ireland’s mouthy disrupter Peter O’Mahoney, powersmash runner CJ Stander, wise-headed Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien. England’s unsung hero Chris Robshaw, big lump James Haskell, Wales’ talented breakaway Justin Tipuric and the simply outstanding Taulupe Faletau.
Ultimately it will be down to the balance Gatland is looking for, and he will want mix of power, craft and impact off the bench. Sadly this means that Chris Robshaw will miss out again, just as he did in 2013.
Easiest selection area of the lot for Gatland, with the two front runners Conor Murray and Rhys Webb miles ahead of those next off the rank. Only question is who the third name will be and most money is on Ben Youngs or Greig Laidlaw. The latter would be a good shout as midweek captain.
Again, Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell pick themselves. After that it comes down to whether Warren takes a risk with someone like Finn Russell or George Ford, or sticks with what he knows in Dan Biggar. Knowing the Kiwi coach, he will not like the defensive frailties and unpredictability of either Russell of Ford.
On the plane: Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar
Midfield is perhaps where the Lions options are weakest. There have been some flashes of class from the options available, but no one has been consistently outstanding either in terms of form or experience. Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is a cert, as is England’s Jonathan Joseph, after that it is all a little muddy and not helped by a number of Scottish centres being injured and the talented Gary Ringrose of Ireland not convincing entirely at this level so far. However, the principles of Warrenball dictate that Gatland loves big lads, which may explain some of the whispers up here that England’s RL convert Ben Te’o is a name under serious consideration.
Wings and Fullbacks
Standout performers on the wing and at fullback in the Six Nations were thin on the ground. George North was good when he was in the game, plus his record and Warren’s previous relationship with him means he is nailed on. Elliot Daly was outstanding for England and can handily also cover centre; Liam Williams was similar in form for Wales and can also play fifteen and Stuart Hogg won the player of the tourmanent at fullback for Scotland. England’s Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell are in with a shout as is Scotland’s Tommy Seymour, who was in red hot form up to Christmas but has tailed off a bit since.
The big question is, will Gatland take Leigh Halfpenny? The France-based Wales fullback is a perennial favourite of the coach, but his form has been wretched to middling for club and country with even his trusted dead-eyed boot going astray off the tee more than usual. Is he a better bet than either Watson, Seymour or Nowell at this stage? Many may not think so, but I reckon Gatland will stick with him again.
* This is my best guess at what we think Gatland will do, not necessarily an endorsement of these choices. Be sure to pop back after the announcement to point and laugh at the folly of my soothsaying.
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