As the clock counts down towards the 2017 Lions tour, this weekend’s round of Six Nations matches offers up a great opportunity for players from Britain and Ireland to stake their claims for a spot on the plane to New Zealand. With Wales facing Ireland in Cardiff and defending champions England hosting Scotland at Twickenham, players will be hoping to lead their team to victory and with it steal a march on their opposite number for a place in Warren Gatland’s test team. So with that here are some of the key battles which will have Gatland watching on with interest this weekend.
Wales v Ireland
Halfpenny v Kearney
With Stuart Hogg likely to be first-choice full-back and a number of wingers able to cover the No.15 jersey, one of these two may well miss out on tour selection. Halfpenny’s goal-kicking may give him a slight advantage over his Irish rival although both are solid and reliable performers in defence and attack. Having been written off by some, Kearney has responded with some fine performances of late for Ireland most notably in victories over New Zealand and Australia in the autumn, and with both players having previous Lions experience their performances on Friday night may go a long way to deciding who makes the tour.
Webb v Murray
Welshman Rhys Webb has been one of the best performers in a Wales side who have struggled in this year’s tournament, and having been under pressure from England’s Ben Youngs and Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw, has stolen a march on his two rivals in the race for the Lions No.9 jersey. Despite that, Ireland’s Connor Murray comes into this match as arguably the form scrum-half in world rugby off the back of another dominating performance against France in the last round. Murray is the front-runner for the test jersey although Webb will be hoping to change that.
Owens v Best
Such is the competition for places at hooker for the Lions, neither Wales’ Ken Owens or Ireland captain Rory Best are assured of a spot on tour. Having led his country to victories over South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in the past year and with Ireland still in the hunt for this year’s Six Nations title, Best may well be a contender for the Lions captaincy should the next two weeks go well for him. However having been called up to replace the suspended Dylan Hartley in 2013, the Ulsterman struggled and consequently played no part in the three tests. Having finally consolidated his place as Wales’ first-choice hooker, Owens has been playing some of his best rugby of late and outplayed Englishman Dylan Hartley in his side’s defeat to England. Solid in the set-piece and with a nickname like ‘Cannonball Ken’, no surprise to find he is a strong ball-carrier as well.
Moriarty v Heaslip
Youth versus experience. 22-year-old Gloucester flanker Moriarty has enjoyed a meteoric rise since making his Welsh debut in 2o15. The New Zealanders already know a lot about him following a number of impressive displays on Wales’ summer tour last year, and since then Moriarty hasn’t looked back. Produced a man-of-the-match performance against the English in round two and his form has been so good of late that fit-again Taulupe Faletau remains on the bench. Making his 100th test appearance in Cardiff, Jamie Heaslip has been a regular fixture in Ireland’s No.8 shirt for the best part of a decade and shows no signs of slowing down having been nominated for World Player of the Year in 2016. Has won countless trophies with both Ireland and Leinster as well as being a key member of the previous two Lions tours. Says everything about the quality of players to choose from that the Irishman is not guaranteed a place in the squad with Faletau and Vunipola also in the reckoning at No.8.
Warburton v Stander
Such is the versatility between these two players that they are just as likely to play alongside each other in a Lions back-row as keep the other out of the team. Having been squeezed out of the No.7 jersey by Justin Tipuric for Wales, Warburton has dusted himself down and got on with the job producing a number of big displays to show that he is more than capable of playing on the blindside or the openside for the Lions. His tackling and ball-carrying has been as strong and dynamic as ever, whilst his work on the floor winning turnovers for his side has been masterful. Being relieved of the captaincy for Wales has done him the world of good, and given his current form he looks a sure bet to make the tour and given his experience in 2013 do not rule him out from being captain again. In the more immediate short-term he comes up against one of the most dynamic and uncompromising back-row forwards in the game this weekend. CJ Stander has been a revelation ever since donning the green jersey for Joe Schmidt’s side. Since making his debut against Wales in Dublin last year, the South African-born player has been immense with his powerful ball-carrying becoming a key part of Ireland’s game. Whilst traditionalists may turn their noses up at the idea of a player who only qualified to play for Ireland through residency playing for the British and Irish Lions, his current form makes it hard to leave him out especially following his hat-trick against the Italians in round two. With Gatland watching on both players will have plenty to prove and with two such physically intimidating players going head-to-head expect a bruising encounter.
Scotland v England
Daly v Seymour
A tantalising match-up between two players who have really come to the fore in this year’s championship. Englishman Daly has been one of England’s best performers this season, with two tries from three games seeing him emerge as something of a bolter having only consolidated his place in the England squad last autumn. Capable of playing centre, wing or full-back and also a strong kicker from distance, Daly’s versatility may be his greatest strength when it comes to tour selection. His opponent on the opposite wing on Saturday, Tommy Seymour has also enjoyed a fine campaign. Seymour has been a reliable performer for both Glasgow and Scotland over the years, with his searing pace often causing rouble for opposition defences and has played an integral part in Scotland’s Six Nations campaign this year setting up a try against France before scoring in the victory over Wales last time out. Two great footballers with bags of pace their battle on Saturday should be one to savour.
Farrell v Dunbar
Another key duel between two of the tournament’s best players. England talisman Farrell has become arguably England’s most important player in the Eddie Jones era, with his accuracy from the kicking tee, work in defence and passing range in attack marking him out as one of the best players in the game. Has matured considerably from the talented yet temperamental player who toured Australia in 2013, and looks a frontrunner to start the test matches. Lining up opposite him this weekend, Scot Alex Dunbar has been integral both in defence and attack for Vern Cotter’s side. A centre built in the same mould as Gatland favourite Jamie Roberts, Dunbar’s direct running and power is a useful weapon in attack although he possesses an equally strong passing and running skill-set. His opportunistic try against Ireland in the first match of this year’s tournament caught the eye and he hasn’t let up since impressing against both France and Wales, and has emerged as a rival to Farrell and Irishman Henshaw for a Lions centre spot.
Ford v Russell
Two players who can conjure up great things in attack, Ford and Russell will have to be watched carefully by both defences on Saturday afternoon. Englishman Ford has had a mixed tournament this year with his defensive frailties apparent against Italy in the last round, although the accuracy of his pass in the build-up to Elliot Daly’s match-winning score against Wales was another reminder of his class as a playmaker. Finn Russell may well be the form fly-half in European rugby such has been his form this year for Glasgow and Scotland. The key man in Glasgow’s relentless march to the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, Russell excelled as Glasgow defeated both Racing 92 and Leicester Tigers home and away, including a virtuoso display against Racing that saw him get the better of All Blacks icon Dan Carter. Has carried that form and confidence into the Six Nations where he and Stuart Hogg have been the catalysts in attack that have seen Scotland record victories over Ireland and Wales. Despite their undoubted talent, critics remain unsure of both players ability to manage and dictate a game from No.10, which is why they are likely to be vying for the reserve fly-half spot behind Jonny Sexton on the Lions tour. With both having very similar styles, chances of both making tour may be slim making Saturday’s contest all the more intriguing.
Launchbury v Gray
The battle in the boiler-room. Having lost his place in the England team to Maro Itoje and George Kruis, Wasps lock Launchbury has made the most of his recall with back-to-back man-of-the-match displays in England’s last two fixtures. A rugged ball-carrier and expert tackler, Launchbury gives his side great go-forward in attack and a reliability in defence that has made him invaluable in England’s campaign thus far. On the opposite side, Richie Gray has performed near enough the same job for Scotland with his impactful performances. Given Jonny Gray’s rise in the international game over the last few years, outperforming his younger brother is an impressive feat especially when Jonny’s performances have been so consistently strong. With so much quality to choose from within the second-row position neither of these players are guaranteed a spot on the plane and it might well be one from two with these players. Having been selected for the tour to Australia four years ago some might say Gray holds the advantage, but that factor shouldn’t have too much say this time around and when it comes to form between the two it is a level playing field.
Haskell v Watson
Another key battle amongst the back-row. Having finally seemed to nail down a regular spot in the England team under Eddie Jones, James Haskell has produced his best rugby under the Australian’s leadership. Playing in the slightly unfamiliar role of openside flanker, Haskell was instrumental in last season’s Grand Slam and was just as important for England a couple of months later when they defeated Australia 3-0 in their own back-yard. Injury may have restricted his appearances since then but his impact off the bench in the victory over Wales was testament to how he has developed into a real test match player. Scotland’s Hamish Watson has come slightly under the radar with a number of impressive showings in this season’s championship. Having benefitted from John Hardie’s absence through injury, Watson has been a crucial part of the reason why Scotland have enjoyed such a fine campaign this year. His tackling and work on the floor winning turnovers was outstanding against both Ireland and France. Yet it was his influence against Wales in the last round where he really came to the fore where he produced a second-half masterclass in disrupting opposition ball whether it be through his tackling or turnovers where he outshone two of the best operators in the game in Warburton and Tipuric. Doubts may persist with both players for Gatland, with question marks over whether Haskell is mobile enough to play openside in New Zealand whilst although Watson is more of a natural 7, the extra physicality of the likes of Warburton and O’Brien may yet hold sway in Gatland’s thinking. Despite this both Haskell and Watson are doing all they can to impress at the moment and the contest between the two of them should be exciting to watch.