Gerry Thornley predicts his Lions starting XV
The Six Nations has both cleared and muddied the water for coach Warren Gatland
Tadhg Furlong’s Six Nations performances have probably done enough to earn him a Lions starting spot. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The four yearly, bar-stool chat and guessing games regarding the composition of the Lions travelling squad and starting XV for the daunting summer tour to New Zealand now gathers momentum, and the picture seems murkier than four years ago and even weeks previously.
A Six Nations high on both absorbing tussles and inconsistency, by teams and individuals, has contributed to this uncertainty. Accordingly, the composition of a putative XV changed from one week to the next during the Six Nations, and from one opinion to another.
When Warren Gatland announces the squad on April 19th it is sure to reflect all of this, with a bigger raft of strong candidates missing out compared to four years ago, yet debate still raging as to a number of positions very much up for grabs in the first text 15 to face the almighty All Blacks in Auckland on June 24th. Uppermost amongst these will be hooker, the composition of the second and back rows, outside centre and the back three.
The Six Nations will have clarified matters for Gatland and his fellow coaches on the bulk of their squad, but there are always late bolters, as a lack of rugby or a truncated season up until now can, in fact, help the candidature of some players.
Much will happen between now and April 19th, not least the European Champions Cup quarter-finals, which could offer, say, someone like Peter O’Mahony the opportunity to re-enforce the good impression he made last Saturday.
Jeremy Guscott made the point on Saturday that O’Mahony’s performance “screamed midweek captaincy” with the potential to also press for a test place.
That Gatland has been moved to declare that he’d like to pick a tour captain who he’d be reasonably confident of making the team also demonstrates how competitive the back five of the pack will be, for that is where the captain is liable to come from. And the list of back-rowers who won’t even make the count will be extraordinary.
Dylan Hartley’s credentials as both one of the hookers and a captain has actually been undermined a tad in the Six Nations, despite England retaining the title. Rory Best looks a stronger candidate, on both fronts, although his leadership of the Lions in the midweek defeat to the Brumbies might count against him being the captain.
Alun Wyn Jones assumed the captaincy for the third test four years ago for the stricken tour captain Sam Warburton, and they look the leading contenders. That Warburton has been freed of the Welsh captaincy for the Six Nations, and rediscovered his best form, may even count in his favour.
Gerry Thornley’s predicted Lions starting XV
Full-Back: STUART HOGG (Scotland)
The primary reason Scotland had their sharpest cutting edge in yonks, but old defensively frailties remained. The test back three might yet feature Liam Williams, George North and Anthony Watson. Leigh Halfpenny’s kicking may see him travel. Rob Kearney’s injuries haven’t helped him.
Right-wing: LIAM WILLIAMS (Wales)
Exceptional in Wales’ three-test tour to New Zealand last summer. Quick, potent and supreme in the air, he could yet start at full-back. Against Scotland Anthony Watson showed his exceptional pace and support play, albeit against Ireland dropped one of the few balls which came his way.
Outside centre: ROBBIE HENSHAW (Ireland)
A very competitive area, with Jonathan Joseph, Elliot Daly and Jonathan Davies other contenders.
Henshaw trucked it up and smashed everything that moved at 12, but 13 is his favoured and best position, and where he could complement two playmakers inside.
Inside centre: OWEN FARRELL (England)
Adapting to a new role, Farrell was a contender for player of the tournament. Has accumulated vast experience for such a young man, fiercely competitive and would give the Lions an additional playmaker as well as exceptional goalkicker.
Left-wing: GEORGE NORTH (Wales)
The Lions’ primary gamebreaker four years ago, his performance against Ireland was probably one of the main reasons in making the watching Gatland smile.
A host of candidates for last wing slot, including Simon Zebo and Keith Earls, as well as Jack Nowell and Scots.
Out-half: JOHNNY SEXTON (Ireland)
Last Saturday showed that if fit, he plays. Simple as.
Fiercely competitive, brave beyond fault and ticks every box as an out-half, Sexton also has credit in the bank. One from George Ford, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell? Maybe the richly inventive Russell.
Scrum-half: CONOR MURRAY (Ireland)
Third choice 9 four years ago, would have been first choice in a fourth test. Gatland likes physical scrum-halves, and his partnership with Sexton counts, as does his MoM performance in Chicago. Rhys Webb will push hard, and Ben Youngs will travel.
Loose-head: MAKO VUNIPOLA (England)
Injuries delayed his Six Nations but potent in the scrums and as a carrier, playing for Saracens in seasonal run-in will help his cause.
Jack McGrath will push hard, and Vunipola as impact replacement has merit. Joe Marler should travel.
Hooker: KEN OWENS (Wales).
Owens was probably Wales’ most consistent player of the tournament. His throwing was high class too.
Rory Best has done enough to be Irish leader and potential midweek captain while Jamie George cold usurp Dylan Hartley, although all 17 tests have been off the bench.
Tight-head: TADHG FURLONG (Ireland)
Strong scrummaging, bounces off and makes tackles, Furlong also puts in huge shifts – playing up to 74th minute or more in last three games. His form usurped the English pair of Dan Cole and Kyle Sinclair, with time running out for WP Nel.
Lock: JOE LAUNCHBURY (England)
Astonishingly consistent and high work-rate looks tailormade for rigours of a Lions tour to New Zealand.
Almost an auxiliary back-rower. Maro Itoje has to travel, and if he doesn’t start the tests would certainly be impact material, and Courtney Lawes could be a third English lock.
Lock: ALUN WYN JONES (Wales)
Welsh warrior and superb line-out operator has lots of credit in the bank from four years ago, when captain in the third test, and could be captain from the start this time.
Johnny Gray, Iain Henderson and Luke Charteris are amongst other contenders.
Blindside flanker: CJ STANDER (Ireland)
His Six Nations form, those 103 carries, makes a compelling case, for the Lions will need different sources of go-forward. Sam Warburton could yet reprise his role at ‘6’ for Wales, and Peter O’Mahony could yet force his way in. Josh Strauss is amongst other leading contenders.
Openside flanker: SAM WARBURTON (Wales)
Freed of the Welsh captaincy, Warburton has at last rediscovered his belligerent uber-physical best.
Although at the same time that could enhance his Lions’ captaincy credentials and he could also switch to ‘6’ if Justin Tipuric or Sean O’Brien start at ‘7’.
Number 8: BILLY VUNIPOLA (England).
The Six Nations came a little too early for the English human wrecking ball, but window of opportunity with Saracens will help.
Ironically, another non-starting ‘8’ in the Six Nations, but a Gatland favourite, Toby Faletau could also be on board.
Gerry Thornley’s predicted Lions 37-man squad
Back Three (6): Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Liam Williams (Wales), George North (Wales), Anthony Watson (England), Jack Nowell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales).
Centres (5): Jonathan Joseph (England), Owen Farrell (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Elliot Daly (England).
Out-halves (2): Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Finn Russell (Scotland).
Scrum-halves (3): Conor Murray (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Youngs (England).
Props (6): Mako Vunipola (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Joe Marler (England), Dan Cole (England), Kyle Sinckler (England).
Hookers (3): Ken Owens (Wales), Rory Best (Ireland), Jamie George (England).
Locks (5): Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Joe Launchbury (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Maro Itoje (England), Jonny Gray (Scotland).
Back-row (7): CJ Stander (Ireland), Sam Warburton (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland).