The dust has just settled on an explosive Six Nations which means the eyes of the rugby world will focus squarely on the April 19 Lions squad announcement. Who gets in?
Everyone else has had a crack at predicting Warren Gatland’s party and Test line-ups for the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand this summer so why can’t we? Last time in Australia Gatland picked 37 players in his original selection and he is likely to do the same this time when he unveils the names on 19 April. There are some top players likely to miss out and maybe he should go down the Clive Woodward route – his first squad, in 2005, had 44 players in it and he called up seven replacements. But we will stick with the Gatland model and good luck to him when he tries to whittle this lot down to 15 Test starters. That is why he gets the big bucks and he will get stick whoever he picks – and there is a case for about 50 players – we are sure we will too. Now where is that tin hat?
Full-backs/wings: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Elliot Daly (England), George North (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Rob Kearney (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England)
Versatility is the name of the game here with numbers tight so Watson and Williams who can play wing or 15 get the nod as does Daly who can also play centre. Rob Kearney is picked for his ability under the high ball and there are plenty of finishers in there. Halfway through the Six Nations North would not have got in but he has found himself again and he is big bloke. That all leaves Leigh Halfpenny and Jack Nowell as the next cabs off the rank if anyone falls over, they will so that pair should not go too far on holiday.
Centres: Owen Farrell (England), Jonathan Joseph (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales)
Owen Farrell is a certainty for the Tests if fit, whether at 10 or 12, Joseph is one of the best finishers around – a fact that masks his ability in defence where he has come on a ton. Davies has been there and done it despite blotting his copybook against England in the Six Nations and Henshaw, another who had a faux-pas in the tournament gets in….just. He has played 12 and 13 at Test level.
Fly-halves: Johnny Sexton (Ireland), George Ford (England)
Johnny Sexton was back to his best in Ireland’s game against England – he absolutely bossed it – but if he thought he was targeted by the English then he will get it with knobs in New Zealand. He knows it is coming and he is good enough to deal with it. Ford just edges Finn Russell out of the tour and there is always Farrell to provide cover at 10.
Scrum-halves: Rhys Webb (Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ben Youngs (England)
Conor Murray and Rhys Webb look like slugging it out for the Test No.9 jersey with the Irishman favourite to nail it at the moment not least because of his partnership with Sexton. Youngs started the second Test in Australia in 2013, having come off the bench in the first, and knows a bit about the Irish fly-half as well. Greig Laidlaw’s injury in Scotland’s game against France has done him no favours on the Lions front.
Props: Mako Vunipola (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (England)
Pick the bones out of this little lot for the Test starters. Marler has been re-born since his difficulties in the 2016 Six Nations, Vunipola has the skill-set to play in the centre, and his finding his feet after an injury lay-off and Cole is another been-there-and-done-that merchant. Furlong is probably front-runner for the tight-head Test spot, but Cole will push him hard and a tour like this could be the making of Sinckler from Eddie Jones’ stand-point. He will also have his mentor at Harlequins, Graham Rowntree, on the trip and the scrum guru rates Sinckler massively as does Adam Jones. He is spiky all right – just what you need in New Zealand where every midweek team will be primed to soften up the Lions ahead of the Tests.
Hookers: Rory Best (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Jamie George (England)
Four into three won’t go and this is one of the hardest areas for Gatland to pick. Owens had a wail of time in the Six Nations, Best showed up in Ireland’s game against England and George might just be the best of the lot. This is tough on Dylan Hartley who probably won’t appreciate the summer off but George is the coming man.
Second row: Joe Launchbury (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Jonny Gray (Scotland), Maro Itoje (England), George Kruis (England)
Gatland name-checked Kruis in an interview on the BBC last weekend even though the Saracens man did not feature in the Six Nations because of injury. He can run a line-out and the Lions will need that in every game down under. Launchbury and Lawes were the standout pairing in the tournament and Lawes and Itoje can both do a shift at six.
Back row: Sam Warburton (Wales), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), CJ Stander (Ireland), James Haskell (England), Billy Vunipola (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
Sam Warburton is back to his best form and O’Mahony gets in on the back of a huge game against England. He is abrasive, good in the line-out and you can see the Kiwi fans taking to his no-nonsense approach. Haskell told us once that the nearest he had got to the Lions was Longleat but he is a good tourist, which is what Gatland is looking for in his last four or five spots, and could easily be midweek captain. Ian McGeechan lamented the absence of a strong character to captain the dirt-trackers in 1993 – Haskell could be the man. And don’t bet against him playing a Test.