Gatland’s Lions: The pre-Six Nations XV

A look at who could be in line to face the All Blacks ahead of opening weekend

Who will Warren Gatland be keeping a close eye on during this year’s Six Nations? Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Who will Warren Gatland be keeping a close eye on during this year’s Six Nations? Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

Loosehead

First choice – Jack McGrath: Leinster’s McGrath has made Ireland’s loosehead position his own in the past year, and with Mako Vunipola injured looks the best bet to do the same with the Lions.

The rest – Cian Healy has been unable to force McGrath out of the Ireland side since his return to full fitness but remains a world class prop. Joe Marler was set to miss the start of the Six Nations but has recovered from his fractured leg ahead of schedule, Welsh warhorse Gethin Jenkins is also injured so Healy looks the likeliest back-up in New Zealand.

Hooker

First choice – Dylan Hartley: He is disciplinary nightmare but England’s captain has been a key figure of the Eddie Jones revolution and is likely to be first choice for the Lions.

The rest – Rory Best won 100 caps for Ireland and is certain to be on the plane - he earned a late call-up in 2013 thanks to a Hartley red card in that year’s Premiership final. England’s Jamie George looks best bet to travel as third choice but could face competition from Welsh duo Ken Owens and Scott Baldwin.

Tighthead

First choice – Tadhg Furlong: Furlong’s rise has been astronomic and while he has only made four starts for Ireland his performances – particularly against the All Blacks in Chicago – have been enough to mark him out as the leading candidate for tighthead.

The rest – Dan Cole has legitimate claims for the starting tigthead berth but a good Six Nations from Furlong should see him usurped. Scotland’s WP Nel looked certain to travel until a recent neck injury meaning the door could be open for Wales’ Samson Lee.

Secondrow

First choice – Alun Wyn Jones’s experience and his return to form in the autumn suggest he is almost certain to be in Wales coach Gatland’s starting XV. Maro Itoje’s athleticism and ability to play at six means he can essentially provide the Lions with a fourth backrow forward – vital against the All Blacks.

The rest – George Kruis’ latest injury casts some doubt but he should be fit for the summer tour while Devin Toner’s form makes him a must-pick. Scotland’s Johnny Gray will also go and Iain Henderson’s ability to play at six may see him sneak into the squad.

Blindside flanker

First choice – CJ Stander: Stander might be a natural eight but he has been outstanding for Ireland at blindside and it seems to be the most logical way of getting him into the Lions XV – which he needs to be.

The rest - Chris Robshaw’s injury problems mean he has no real chance to force his way into Gatland’s thinking. Itoje and Henderson’s ability to play at six gives Gatland plenty of options, but good tournaments for Peter O’Mahony and Ross Moriarty could see either get the nod.

Openside flanker

First choice – Justin Tipuric: Tipuric has been in inspired form for Wales and the Ospreys and he should be selected ahead of compatriot Sam Warburton.

The rest – Sean O’Brien’s injury worries put question marks over whether or not he should travel but if he can prove his fitness it would be very difficult for Gatland not to take him. An excellent Six Nations could see Josh ven der Flier sneak his way onto the plane while Warburton has a lot of work to do to be selected. James Haskell is another who is relying on a good showing in the Six Nations.

Number eight

First choice – Billy Vunipola: Vunipola is the best number eight at Gatland’s disposal but he is currently out injured and will miss the Six Nations. However, if fit he should be first choice.

The rest – Taulupe Faletau is a Gatland favourite and has the ball carrying ballast and ability on the floor needed when facing the All Blacks. A knee injury rules him out of England’s opener with Wales but wouldn’t affect his Lions chances. Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip, despite his seemingly constant good form, could miss out.

Scrumhalf

First choice – Conor Murray: Murray is arguably the best scrum half in the world and recently inspired Ireland to victory over the All Blacks. Nailed on starter.

The rest – Murray’s understudies are again fairly straightforward to pick, with England’s Ben Youngs and Wales’ Rhys Webb also nailed on – fitness provided. Gareth Davies could make it if compatriot Webb can’t shake off reoccurring ankle issues.

Outhalf

First choice – Jonathan Sexton: The tour promises to be a particularly gruelling one, and Sexton’s latest injury has once again cast doubts over his fitness. If he can manage to get back to the level needed and maintain it he will be a key component in gatland’s side.

The rest – Owen Farrell has been a fixture at inside centre for England but is also a 10, meaning Gatland could take a third outhalf. George Ford’s relationship with Farrell makes him the likely choice while Dan Biggar and Finn Russell are currently outside bets.

Inside centre

First choice – Owen Farrell: Having been moved to 12 for the opening game of Eddie Jones’s tenure Farrell has kept the position ever since. His goal kicking is arguably better than Sexton’s and while he will go as a 12 his ability as an outhalf gives Gatland added flexibility.

The rest – Robbie Henshaw is pretty much guaranteed to travel and can push for a starting berth, especially if Farrell is used at 10. Jamie Roberts is an old Gatland stalwart but no longer seems the force of old so compatriot Scott Williams could be a more viable option if he takes the 12 jersey for the Six Nations.

Outside centre

First choice – Jonathon Joseph: Joseph has been one of England’s standout performers during their unbeaten run and it one of the world’s form outside centres. His partnership with Farrell could be key to the Lions’ hopes.

The rest: A good tournament – and particularly a flourishing partnership with Henshaw – could see Garry Ringrose earn a surprise selection. Jared Payne would also be a strong contender providing he can stay injury free while Scotland’s Huw Jones – who plies his trade for the Stormers in South Africa – is a potential bolter.

Wing

First choice – George North has been plagued by head injuries but if he can stay fit and recapture his form of old during the Six Nations then Gatland is likely to select him as a starter. On the other wing Anthony Watson is another who has flourished under Eddie Jones. He missed the autumn with a broken jaw but is fit for the Six Nations.

The rest – Simon Zebo’s ability to play full-back, added to a certain ‘x-factor’ should see him make the tour. Tommy Bowe has been selected in Ireland’s Six Nations squad but has a lot of work to do to force his way into the reckoning. A good tournament could see one of England duo Jack Nowell and Johnny May sneak into Gatland’s squad.

Fullback

First choice – Stuart Hogg: Glasgow’s Hogg is the form full-back out of the four nations and arguably in Europe. He is thrilling to watch and a threat from deep, with an excellent kick to match – and can cover across the back three or at 10.

The rest – Akin to the backrow, Gatland has a number of options to choose from at full-back. Following his resurgence late last year a good tournament could see Rob Kearney made a Lion again after missing out in 2013. Gatland will keep faith in one of his old lieutenants, Leigh Halfpenny, meaning Kearney will be up against Mike Brown and Liam Williams for the final slot.

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