With a cou days to go before Warren Gatland names his British and Irish Lions squad for the upcoming tour of New Zealand, anticipation is building amongst rugby supporters across the British Isles as they draw up their picks for the squad. With the tour fast approaching, Gatland and his coaches have likely settled on most of their squad, yet every Lions tour throws up a surprise with players sneaking under the radar, sometimes with very little test-match experience. Here are some of the form players who could be the surprise names on the plane this summer.
One of the many promising young prospects Leo Cullen has unearthed this season as Leinster head coach, Joey Carbery could well be the biggest star of the lot. Having marked his Leinster debut with two tries in a victory over Treviso in September 2016, the young back has not looked back since. With Irish and Lions fly-half Sexton occupying the no.10 jersey at Leinster, fly-half Carbery has played most of his rugby at full-back this season where his balanced running game and ability to ghost through opposition defences has been an integral reason why Leinster’s attack has been so deadly this year. Just 21-years-old but proved his class recently with a man-of-the-match display in the Champions Cup quarter-final victory over Wasps where he set up two of Leinster’s three tries and made the most metres of any player on the pitch. Still something of a long shot given his inexperience, although with opinion split on Finn Russell and George Ford for the fly-half berth, Carbery’s versatility may give him an opportunity in the same way Stuart Hogg earned selection in 2013.
The Blonde Bombshell has been back to his rampaging best for Gloucester in recent months. Whilst his club may have been inconsistent, Hibbard has produced a number of big displays in the front row and looks back to the form that saw him selected for the Lions tour of Australia four years ago. In the wake of that tour Hibbard’s form suffered, with him losing his Wales place to Scott Baldwin and Ken Owens, culminating in him missing out on the 2015 World Cup. Jamie George and Ken Owens look in pole position for the hooker’s test jersey, however there may be an opportunity for Hibbard with both Dylan Hartley and Rory Best having struggled for form at times in this year’s Six Nations. A monstrous ball-carrier who brings great momentum, a strong tackler and solid in the set-piece, Gatland knows he can trust the Gloucester hooker to do a job this summer.
With his excellent form over the last few months, hardly much of a bolter but given the competition for places amongst the back-row the Edinburgh man remains an outsider. Despite this Watson has done more than most of his fellow back-row rivals to impress Gatland and his coaching staff, playing with a feverish intensity whether it be hitting back opposition players in defence or carrying the ball in attack. Was one of the top performers in Scotland’s opening two games against Ireland and France, but produced his best display in the victory over Wales where his excellent work at the breakdown nullified the dual threat of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric and laid the platform for Scotland’s impressive attack to run rings around the Welsh defence. Up there alongside Stuart Hogg as Scotland’s best player of the tournament, Watson has taken his international form back to his club, scoring a try in Edinburgh’s Challenge Cup defeat to La Rochelle. An excellent operator at the breakdown, Tipuric and Warburton’s likely tour selection may leave Watson fighting a losing battle but should certainly be in the frame when Gatland and his coaches finalise their back-row picks.
The Saracens winger delivered a timely reminder of his finishing prowess with a brace against Glasgow in a Champions Cup quarter-final victory, and despite turning his back on England may well sneak on to the tour to New Zealand. Having been frustrated by a lack of opportunities given to him by first Stuart Lancaster and now Eddie Jones, Ashton has signed for French giants Toulon for next season and as a consequence will not be eligible to play for England. Despite receiving his fair share of criticism over the decision, the winger’s form this season has once again been impressive. His defence remains a big weakness highlighted in the recent Champions Cup match by the ease in which Glasgow’s Lee Jones fended him off on his way to the try-line, and with Lions rivals Jack Nowell and Liam Williams solid in this area he remains a longshot. Despite this he is still arguably the most predatory winger in the Northern Hemisphere and the question is can Gatland afford to leave out such a potent attacking weapon.
Ruled out of the Six Nations championship with a hamstring injury picked up on the eve of the tournament, Cronin’s chances of pressing his own claims for a Lions call-up looked to have gone up in smoke. The Leinster & Ireland hooker would have been anxious watching on from the sidelines as the likes of Hartley, George and Owens were given plenty of chances to impress Lions coach Gatland. However returning from injury for his club on the weekend, it didn’t take long for Cronin to impress. 24 minutes into Leinster’s 20-18 victory over Ospreys, Cronin took a pass from Robbie Henshaw on the wing stepped infield before leaving Ospreys fly-half Dan Biggar clutching thin air as he swerved past the Welshman to run in unopposed for Leinster’s first try. Anyone who has watched Cronin in the past will know that this guy has a more than decent engine for a hooker as well as impressive handling and offloading skills, attributes commonly associated with New Zealand forwards. Many will say his failure to nail down his national jersey will go against him compared to others, but at 30-years-old with 56 caps for his country along with domestic and European titles under his belt, he has the pedigree at the top-level.
Young Harlequins prop Sinckler has been highly impressive in the Aviva Premiership this season, and has taken that same form into his fledgling international career. Having won his first cap as a replacement against South Africa in November last year, Sinckler has been a near ever-present in England’s match-day squads since, winning another seven caps as a replacement. Harlequins may have struggled for consistency this season but the same could not be said of their 24-year-old tight-head who has played an integral role in his sides success this season. Like fellow Lions hopeful Tadhg Furlong, Sinckler is one of a new breed of tight-head props who are capable of far more than just anchoring the set-piece. A player who can offer just as much in attack as he does in defence, Sinckler proved in this year’s Six Nations he can more than hold his own at the top level as seen in Cardiff where his late introduction swung the game in England’s favour at a time when defeat looked likely. The man currently in possession of the England No.3 jersey, Dan Cole, has the experience for both England and the Lions and would likely be a safe option for Gatland to take on tour. Sinckler however could offer up a more exciting and mobile option amongst the front-row and with limited test-match experience could catch out an All Blacks side who will probably know little about him.