With just a few days before Warren Gatland names his Lions squad for the tour of South Africa, here are my picks for this year’s 36-man squad….
Wyn Jones, Mako Vunipola, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Zander Fagerson
On the loosehead side Wyn Jones was one of the outstanding performers in the Six Nations championship and looks the frontrunner for the test jersey. The Welshman is an excellent scrummager, capable of winning turnovers and has great fitness evident by the number of minutes he played in the Six Nations. Mako Vunipola is a proven performer at this level, and although not in the best of form at the moment Gatland knows his capabilities well from previous Lions tours. Rory Sutherland has been excellent for Scotland the last few years and has been influential in their improvement, whilst Joe Marler is playing some of his best rugby for Harlequins but Ireland’s Cian Healy gets the nod for me with his power and strength in the scrum and the loose as well as his vast experience.
Amongst the tightheads Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler are two of the very best in world rugby currently, and either pair could start in the test series, with both players almost certain to be in the test 23 if fit. Behind them Zander Fagerson, Andrew Porter and Tomos Francis seem the most likely to take the next squad place. Francis has become a fixture in the Wales side in recent years anchoring the scrum well, but both Fagerson and Porter provide a greater ball-carrying threat to go with their prowess in the scrum. A tough call between the two, Fagerson’s added experience at this level just shades it over Porter’s impact from the bench.
Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George
Having missed the autumn campaign through injury Ken Owens made a welcome return in the Six Nations, and with his return the Welsh line-out functioned far more effectively. Owens is a robust ball-carrier and strong tackler and has great leadership qualities as well as previous Lions test experience. Luke Cowan-Dickie has finally seemed to translate his excellent club form to the test arena with a string of dynamic displays seeing him become England’s first-choice hooker and his energy and aggression will be important in South Africa. Jamie George like a few English players has struggled for form but is a classy operator with the medals to back it up and just pips George Turner who showed great form during the Six Nations.
Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Maro Itoje, James Ryan, Jonny Gray, Tadhg Beirne
The Springboks are renowned for their towering, imposing lock forwards so the Lions will need to match them in this area. Luckily Warren Gatland has some of the best to call upon in the shape of Welsh talisman Alun Wyn Jones – an obvious choice for captain on his fourth tour – and England’s Maro Itoje. Ireland’s James Ryan like Itoje is one of the best young lock forwards in world rugby and will likely be vying with Jones and Itoje for a starting test jersey. Tadhg Beirne is skilful operator and was the form player in his position in the Six Nations, whilst his versatility in covering back-row is very useful in a smaller squad. Scotland’s Jonny Gray is an excellent second-row often at the top of the charts when it comes to tackling, carrying and lineouts won and his no-nonsense approach is tailor-made for South Africa and sees him just edge out Iain Henderson, another highly-skilled forward who impressed during the Six Nations.
Tom Curry, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Taulupe Faletau, CJ Stander
Arguably the toughest area of the squad to pick with Gatland stacked with a number of top-class options. Tom Curry, Hamish Watson, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau all look shoo-ins for the squad with each player being on top of their game in recent months – especially Scotland’s Watson who was named Six Nations Player of the Championship. In a smaller squad Gatland is likely to only take two or three others to compete for back-row spots. Sam Underhill’s injury has undermined his prospects and with Curry, Tipuric and Watson all specialist opensides he could well be the odd one out despite him starring in England’s run to the 2019 World Cup final. Josh Navidi and Jamie Ritchie are players with similar skillsets – physically imposing flankers each with a tireless work-rate – and are hugely important to their respective teams. Navidi’s consistency of performance and ability to cover positions across the back-row just gives him the nod. Billy Vunipola, CJ Stander and Sam Simmonds are all options to cover the world-class Faletau at No.8. Vunipola however has been in desperately poor form of late, looking out of shape and struggling for confidence in the Six Nations. In contrast South African-born Stander was excellent for Ireland in the championship with his power in attack and defence, whilst Exeter’s Sam Simmonds has been playing the house down for his club for some time- form that should have seen him starting for England in recent months. With very little to choose between Stander and Simmonds either player could get the nod but Stander’s bulk and power allied with his experience sees him just edge out the dynamic all-action game of Simmonds.
Conor Murray, Tomos Williams, Danny Care
A position where the Lions are not blessed with players in the best of form. Conor Murray’s experience and tactical control make him the leading contender for the No.9 jersey – with his masterful performance against England a few months ago a timely reminder of his class. Behind Murray the Welsh duo of Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies look the nearest challengers to Murray. Davies has proven big-game experience having excelled at two World Cups, but his form has been shaky of late. Williams is a player of rich promise, although injuries have stalled his progress but Gatland likes him and he could bring great impact off the bench. Ben Youngs would have been another likely contender but has pulled out for family reasons, whilst Ali Price is a real threat around the fringes but has struggled at times with his game management and tactical control. Harlequins’ Danny Care may not have played test rugby for a while but has been in excellent form for his club recently and is a player with bags of experience after a lengthy test career. Care would be a good tourist and could act as a mentor to Williams, who like Care in his younger days is a scrum-half with raw pace but some rough edges to his game.
Dan Biggar, Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell
There was a welcome return to form from Wales’ Dan Biggar and Ireland’s Jonny Sexton during the Six Nations, both had their struggles last season but grew in prominence with each passing game this year. Biggar’s game seems to have reached a new level since his move to Northampton with his attacking game flourishing in particular. Despite being 35 years old, Sexton continues to defy his age with some top displays – none more so than in Ireland’s Six Nations victories over Scotland and England. Finn Russell is a supremely talented 10 and is arguably the best attacking fly-half available to Gatland, although his game management skills can be called into question and his loose style of play sees him take risks that goes against Gatland’s preferred style of play. England’s Owen Farrell was the Lions talisman four years ago in New Zealand, but poor form has undermined him of late. His ability to cover centre 12 as well as 10 boosts his chances, as does his winning mentality and leadership qualities.
Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Davies, Chris Harris
Robbie Henshaw was one of the best players in this year’s Six Nations and his power and strength in attack and defence will be needed in South Africa where size is king. Manu Tuilagi looks to have run out of time to prove his fitness despite his renowned abilities as a match-winner. George North’s injury is a massive blow with the Welshman’s rejuvenated form since his move from wing to centre earmarking him as a test starter at 13. In his absence Garry Ringrose and Jonathan Davies look the frontrunners to fill the centre berth. Irishman Ringrose is a skilful and classy runner whilst Wales’ Davies is an experienced player of undoubted class with six Lions test caps to his name already. North’s injury frees up a space in midfield with Scottish duo Chris Harris and Cameron Redpath and England’s Henry Slade the most likely to fill the void. Redpath is short on experience at this level, but produced a sublime performance on his test bow at Twickenham a few months back where he was a constant threat in attack. Injuries however have cruelly robbed him of the opportunity to build on that encouraging start. Henry Slade is another classy footballer but his best performances have often come at club level with England’s more prosaic approach failing to ignite his obvious qualities. Scotland’s Chris Harris has largely gone under the radar although his importance to his side is clear to see with his defensive skills particularly important in helping Scotland achieve wins at Twickenham and the Stade de France this year. Gatland likes a physical presence in midfield and with two familiar faces in Townsend and Tandy on the coaching team, Harris may get the nod.
Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, Hugo Keenan
Scotland captain Stuart Hogg is in the form of his life and looks likely to win his first Lions test cap on what would be his third tour. Liam Williams is another world-class full-back, and his aerial prowess could be a significant asset in South Africa. Anthony Watson has returned to form, and his expert footwork and pace make him a near shoo-in for the test team on the wing – just as he was in New Zealand in 2017. Louis Rees-Zammit is the new sensation of test rugby and after his match-winning exploits for Wales, his skill for conjuring tries out of nothing could see him unleashed on the Springboks this summer. Jonny May looked a shoo-in for the squad a couple of months ago but his form has fallen away sharply, in that same period Wales’ Josh Adams has been back in amongst the tries showing the form that saw him shine at the 2019 World Cup. May and Adams are both top-class finishers, but given their similarities Gatland is likely to opt for just one in this smaller squad and May’s recent struggles may see him miss out in favour of the Welshman. Duhan van der Merwe’s size and power made him a hard man to stop in attack in the Six Nations although his defensive shortcomings may undermine his cause. Hugo Keenan has been one of Ireland’s most impressive performers in recent times and looked perfectly at home in the 15 jersey. The Leinster man has a great range of skills in attack, is equally comfortable and strong with his running and passing game, can play wing as well as full-back and also is a steady presence under the high ball even if his defence needs improving.