Lions Watch: Winners & Losers

So as the international season came to an end with England making it a perfect 13 wins from 13 games under Eddie Jones with victory over Australia, Bristish and Irish players will return to their club sides looking to gain some form and momentum ahead of the Six Nations. Yet with a British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand awaiting in the summer, the stakes will be raised with players from each of the four home nations vying to steal a march on their opposite numbers. So after an encouraging autumn series for Lions head coach Warren Gatland which saw Ireland and England in particular enjoy some notable highs, which players have boosted their chances of getting on the plane next summer and which ones may find themselves staying behind?

Winners

Garry Ringrose (Ireland)

A young player with a very bright future. Having made his Leinster debut back at the start of the 2015/16 season, Ringrose has established himself as a key player amongst an exciting and competitive backline at the Irish province, so much so that Joe Schmidt saw enough to hand him his international debut against Canada recently. A young outside centre hailing from Leinster, comparisons with his exalted predecessor in the 13 jersey were inevitable and like O’Driscoll, Ringrose knows his way to the try-line – as proven in the autumn when he scored his first try for his country in Ireland’s final international of the year against Australia. A player with a strong build and bags of pace and skill, Ringrose is one of a number of exciting Irish prospects coming through the ranks at Leinster, and his performances for club and country have made him something of a bolter ahead of the Lions tour. Whilst Gatland may be wary of throwing such a young player into the heat of the battle next summer, there is no doubting Ringrose’s potential and with Wales’ Jonathan Davies struggling for form and neither Jonathan Joseph and Eliot Daly yet to nail down the England 13 jersey, there may well be an opening for Ringrose.

Ben Youngs (England)

Not much of a bolter given his previous experience, but the Leicester No.9 has cemented his place as Eddie Jones’ first-choice scrum-half after a seemingly endless battle with Danny Care and was England’s star player of a wonderful autumn series for the reigning European champions. As far back as the Six Nations and Youngs was still under pressure from Care for the scrum-half berth and with Connor Murray, Rhys Webb and Greig Laidlaw all excelling for the other home nations at half-back, Youngs seemed to be losing ground in the hunt for a Lions spot. Yet under Jones’ man-management Youngs looks back to his best after an autumn series where he terrorised defences with his sharpness around the fringes of rucks and mauls. Showing the sort of form that saw him selected for the 2013 tour to Australia, Youngs has stolen a march on rivals Webb and Laidlaw and now looks in pole position to challenge Irishman Murray for that test match jersey next summer.

Justin Tipuric (Wales)

Another former tourist who has enjoyed a stellar autumn campaign, the Ospreys flanker has taken his chance for Wales at openside flanker in the absence of 2013 Lions skipper Sam Warburton and has emerged as a  possible frontrunner for the No.7 jersey. One of the few Welsh players to come away with any sort of credit after an underwhelming series of performances from Wales recently, Tipuric has excelled both in defence and attack, whether it be winning turnovers in rucks or inspiring attacks from deep with his wonderful ball-handling skills and running angles. His try against South Africa was a thing of beauty, from the impressive angle he ran to break the line to the searing pace that saw him side-step the Springboks full-back on his way to the try-line, a try more reminiscent of an international centre than a flanker. In 2013, the Osprey was given limited chances given the form of the likes of Warburton and Sean O’Brien, but four years older and in the form of his life Tipuric looks ready for that responsibility. Will face stiff competition from the bulkier frames of England’s James Haskell and Ireland’s Sean O’Brien as well as Warburton, but has the advantage of being better out wide in attack with ball in hand as well as being a more like-for-like rival at No.7 to the All Blacks duo of Sam Cane and Ardie Savea.

Huw Jones (Scotland)

A Scot with a Welsh name who plays in South Africa. Quite a bit to get your head around. A few months ago nobody from the British Isles had heard of this 22-year-old centre, yet after being plucked from relative obscurity, the Edinburgh-born Stormers centre burst on to the scene in quite some style in November. Picked at outside centre against Southern Hemisphere giants Australia – having only made his debut in the summer – Jones proceeded to score two tries and claim a well-deserved ‘Man of the Match’ award as Scotland once again came agonisingly close to recording an overdue victory over the Wallabies. Now he is the talk of the town, with Scotland desperately trying to get him back playing in his homeland, and maybe even Gatland taking a little more interest in the Scot. Jones’ attacking skills were evident throughout the autumn, and Vern Cotter will likely give him every chance to have a go at Scotland’s European rivals in the Six Nations and with it stake a claim for a possible Lions berth. Will face competition from fellow Lions hopefuls Mark Bennett and Duncan Taylor but if he maintains recent form could well be a bolter.

Losers

Jamie Roberts (Wales)

One of Gatland’s most trusted lieutenants, and a man who was a key member of the two previous Lions tour, Roberts may be somewhat of a surprising name to find on this list. Yet on the evidence of recent performances time seems to be catching up with the Harlequins centre. With Wales looking to shake off the ‘Warrenball’ tag and evolve their game to a more expansive style of playing, Roberts has been the biggest casualty of this evolution. Over the years Roberts has been highlighted as both the strength and weakness within the Welsh team – a strong tackler and key weapon in punching holes in opposition defences with his direct running, but also being described as an unimaginative midfield player who lacks the creativity to unlock defences with his passing game. Going into the autumn, the clamour for Scarlets centre Scott Williams to wear the No.12 jersey was building and following a defensive horror show that saw Australia run out 32-8 winners in Wales’ opening match, Roberts paid the price losing his place in the starting XV for the key games against Argentina and South Africa. All of this despite the former Cardiff player excelling in the Six Nations with a number of key performances in both defence and attack. However with the likes of Owen Farrell and Robbie Henshaw performing consistently well at inside centre in recent times and having lost his Wales place to Williams, Roberts seemingly has it all to do if he is to be on that plane to New Zealand next summer. Heading towards the latter end of his career Roberts may have to reinvent himself as a player in the same way the likes of Brian O’ Driscoll and Paul O’ Connell answered the critics who wrote them off towards the end of their careers, and with Gatland at the helm should he be able to do that over the coming months he may still have a key role to play next summer.

Joe Marler (England)

Another player who seemed to be a front-runner for Lions selection at the start of the year, only to lose ground to an international rival over the last few months. Having played a part in all five Six Nations games during England’s Grand Slam success in the Spring, Marler’s decision to take a break from the game and not tour Australia in the summer saw Saracens’ Mako Vunipola steal a march on him in the front-row pecking order. Vunipola’s performances both on that tour and for Saracens at the start of the season have cemented his place as England’s first-choice loosehead, and whilst Marler has returned to international action this autumn he has found himself often having to do with a role off the bench. Whilst Marler’s decision to take a break from the game following a number of disciplinary issues was a brave call that saw many people commend him for such an action, it offered the more mobile Vunipola a great opportunity which he has gladly taken with the Saracens prop looking favourite at the moment to start in the Lions front-row for the test series next summer. A competent scrummager if not the strongest, Marler will need to generate some more form over the coming months to compete for a place in the touring squad.

Samson Lee (Wales)

Having successfully dislodged British and Irish Lion Adam Jones from the Welsh front-row, young Scarlet Samson Lee looked ready to take on the world when he first arrived on the international scene at the age of 21. With his strength and power in the scrum, Lee looked like a man who could dominate the No.3 jersey for club and country for the next decade. However after an impressive start to his international career a spate of injuries has left him struggling for form and fitness this year. In that time Exeter’s Tomas Francis has emerged as a contender for the Welsh tight-head berth, and over the course of the season has overtaken Lee in the pecking order for his country. With Dan Cole continuing to anchor the scrum effectively for England, along with outstanding performances from WP Nel (Scotland) and Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) in recent times, Lee is likely to miss his chance next summer unless he can reclaim the Welsh jersey with some big performances in the Six Nations.

John Hardie (Scotland)

Somewhat of a bolter in the first place given the competition in the back-row, New Zealand-born Hardie has been unfortunate that injury has struck at a crucial time, just as he was beginning to make a strong case for touring his homeland in 2017. Having qualified for Scotland through his grandmother, openside flanker Hardie made his international debut in a World Cup warm-up game just a few months after signing for Edinburgh in the summer of 2015. Having impressed Scotland head coach Cotter, the former Highlanders flanker became an integral part of Scotland’s squad during the World Cup where he emerged as one of Scotland’s best performers as they so nearly made the semi-finals. A few months later and having established himself as Scotland’s first-choice openside, Hardie carried on from where he left off as he enjoyed a fine Six Nations which saw him score a crucial try against Italy and also finish as the tournament’s top tackler. Traditional British and Irish fans may not like the idea of a man from New Zealand representing the Lions in New Zealand, yet the Lions have history with selecting players with ties to southern hemisphere nations with Riki Flutey having toured South Africa in 2009. A player with Super Rugby experience from his time in New Zealand, Hardie could be a useful tourist and with his performances for Scotland has become a worthy contender for Lions selection. However injury has come about at the wrong time for Scotland’s No.7 and with Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien impressing and seemingly leading the charge for the Lions No.7 test jersey – as well as James Haskell and Sam Warburton to compete with – Hardie’s chances of making the tour look slim at this time.

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