The talking is nearly over, and the action is ready to begin. With Lions head coach Warren Gatland naming his squad to tour World Champions New Zealand in a matter of hours, players from Britain and Ireland will be anxiously waiting to see if they have joined the illustrious names of the past in becoming a British and Irish Lion. With that in mind here is the 38-man squad I believe Gatland should take to face the All Blacks.
Loosehead Props: Jack McGrath, Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler
Irishman McGrath has been a consistent performer under Joe Scmidt and has developed into one of the best looseheads around and looks the favourite at the moment to start the test series. Saracens’ Mako Vunipola has previous with the Lions having toured in Australia, and has been in sublime form for the English and European champions this season having improved his set-piece game. After taking a break from the game in the wake of England’s 2016 Grand Slam success, Marler has come back fitter and stronger improving his defence and ball-carrying and after another fine Six Nations campaign for him looks to have beaten out the likes of Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins, both players who still might well be in the frame.
Hookers: Ken Owens, Jamie George, Dylan Hartley
Just a couple of months ago Dylan Hartley and Rory Best not only seemed guaranteed a spot on the plane to New Zealand this summer, but also looked well in contention to captain Gatland’s side. However indifferent form in the Six Nations has left both international captains sweating on their place on tour. Ken Owens was the stand-out performer in his position in the Six Nations and looks likely to go possibly as a test starter, whilst Jamie George has been an integral part of Saracens success both at home and in Europe and should be in the frame for the test team. That looks likely to leave Hartley and Best fighting it out for the final spot. Captain when Ireland beat New Zealand last November, Best has recent experience of beating the reigning world champions and also led his country to victories over South Africa and Australia last year, although had a difficult time of it when called up as a Lions replacement in Australia four years ago. Hartley may have his disciplinary issues but he has an edge to his game which when channelled correctly can drive his teams on to success as seen with his captaincy of England, and although he may be short on match sharpness Gatland knows he can do a job if called upon.
Tighthead Props: Tadhg Furlong, WP Nel, Kyle Sinckler
24-year-old Furlong has been the find of the season with his performances for Ireland and Leinster. A solid presence at the scrum and an effective ball-carrier and tackler, he looks destined to wear the test jersey. WP Nel has credit in the bank given his influence for Scotland despite his injury problems of late, although a neck injury for a tight-head is never a good sign and Dan Cole has the experience from 2013 and continues to do a solid job for England, so would be a worthy replacement. With very few other internationals sticking their hands up during the Six Nations, Kyle Sinckler’s emergence both for Harlequins and England has caught the attention of many and his mobility offers something a little different for Gatland.
Lock Forwards: Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Joe Launchbury, Richie Gray, Iain Henderson
A position with fierce competition for places. Having burst on to the scene over the last two years, Maro Itoje continues to hit new heights for club and country, playing like a man with twice as much experience. The proposition of sticking the young Saracen in with Wales and Lions veteran Alun-Wyn Jones is an exciting one and although neither are guaranteed a test place just yet, both are sure to be on the plane. Joe Launchbury was arguably the player of the tournament in the Six Nations and has shot back into contention as a result. Saracens’ George Kruis looked a shoe-in for the tour a couple of months ago but through no fault of his own his chances have been hindered by injury as well as the form of Launchbury, although such was his form and importance to club and country before the injury he could still make the squad. As Scotland enjoyed their best Six Nations in years, it was no surprise to find the Gray brothers producing big displays from the second-row. Like Itoje, Jonny Gray has had a rapid rise with Glasgow and Scotland and has taken to test-match rugby like a duck to water, although older brother Richie probably edged him out in terms of performances in the Six Nations so just might edge him out for this tour. Ulster’s Iain Henderson may be something of a surprise name for many although he is a highly-skilful athlete capable of playing on the flank as well as second-row and his performance against England in Dublin was that of a player not over-awed in big games.
Back Row: Peter O’Mahony, Sam Warburton, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola
Without doubt the most competitive area of the squad, with a number of top players likely to miss out. Ross Moriarty backed up an impressive start to his test career with a strong Six Nations including a barnstorming display against England, yet Peter O’Mahony was instrumental in disrupting English ball when Ireland denied Eddie Jones’ side back-to-back Grand Slams and should edge out the Welshman. Hamish Watson played a starring role in Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, although the Edinburgh man is desperately unlucky to be competing alongside two of the very best opensides in the world in Welsh duo Warburton and Tipuric. CJ Stander has been a revelation since arriving on the test scene for Ireland and his strength and power will be needed in New Zealand. Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola have both had their injury problems and are short on match sharpness, but coming up against New Zealand captain Kieran Read their star quality will be needed. Sean O’Brien and James Haskell both bring shuddering physicality although the Irishman gets the nod due to the greater threat he poses in attack.
Scrum-halfs: Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs
A position where Gatland is blessed to choose from four internationals, each very much capable of taking on the All Blacks. Murray (Ireland), Webb (Wales), Youngs (England) and Laidlaw (Scotland) have all been key men for their respective countries over the last few years and have delivered time and time again in big test matches. However four into three clearly doesn’t go with Lions scrum-half selection, and at one time or another each of these four have been left sweating on their Lions prospects. Webb and Murray look the front-runners for the test series with Webb in particular enjoying a fine Six Nations. Ben Youngs had a quiet tournament in comparison and may have ground to make up, though should still make the tour. Greig Laidlaw’s Six Nations was cut short by injury and that could well be the fatal blow to his chances, although he provides a goal-kicking option as well as proven leadership qualities, attributes which offer something a little different from the other contenders.
Fly-halfs: Jonny Sexton, Finn Russell
Ireland & Leinster fly-half Sexton was one of the stand-out performers on the successful tour of Australia in 2013, and he will once again be the go-to man for Gatland in the No.10 shirt. England’s George Ford and Scotland’s Finn Russell are both classy playmakers but can struggle with their decision-making and controlling of a game, but Russell edges it for me due to his spark and imagination in attack and has shone in big matches this season.
Centres: Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies
A more mature and reliable performer than four years ago, Farrell’s partnership with Sexton could be one to watch, and the Saracens man will be crucial to the Lions cause with his kicking from the tee. Playing alongside him for England, Jonathan Joseph has taken his game to the next level and as a naturally talented footballer with an eye for the try-line, New Zealand would be wary of giving him much space. Welshman Jamie Roberts has endured a difficult time of late, losing his Wales place and struggling to regain the form that saw him star on the two previous Lions tours, although as a Gatland favourite could still be in the mix. A more likely option would be Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw who like Roberts is a big man with a direct style of play, but perhaps a more subtle touch in midfield. Jonathan Davies looked to be regaining some much-needed form in the Six Nations and gets the nod over impressive youngster Garry Ringrose due to his experience.
Wings: Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Tommy Seymour, Eliot Daly, George North, Liam Williams
Another tough area with much competition for places. Eliot Daly’s versatility makes him ideally suited for Lions selection and as one of England’s most impressive performers in the Six Nations he should make the cut. His international team-mates Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell have also been crucial to England’s recent success and both players are solid and reliable performers in attack and defence. George North was the one of the stars of the 2013 series and whilst he can drift in and out of games at times, he remains a potent attacking weapon and his clash with All Black Julian Savea will be a mouth-watering prospect for supporters. Alongside North for Wales, Scarlets’ Liam Williams has matured into a fine test player capable of moments of magic and is an aggressive defender. Scotland’s Tommy Seymour has been a consistent performer on the international test scene and a big reason why Scotland’s attack is starting to flourish at last. A player equally capable of creating tries as scoring them, Seymour just gets the nod over 2013 tourist Sean Maitland who himself has had a very strong season for Saracens and Scotland. Simon Zebo can not be ruled out given the exciting threat he poses in attack with his footballing skills, although the Munsterman failed to shine in Six Nations.
Full-backs: Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg
Six Nations Player of the tournament for the last two seasons, Stuart Hogg has devoleped into one of the best attackers in the game and his showdown with Ben Smith could well decide the fate of the test series. Hogg’s defence remain suspect though and with Welshman Leigh Halfpenny a reassuring presence at the back both in defence and from the kicking tee, Gatland may yet have a decision to make as to who wears the 15 jersey. Ireland’s Rob Kearney remains a classy performer with the medals to show for it, although he and England’s Mike Brown look likely to miss out.