With Ireland beating the All Blacks in Chicago a chink of light has appeared on the Lions horizon and after a month of progress in the North, a squad is starting to take shape
Any Lions squad member selected in April will have to have multi-faceted skills, one-trick ponies need not apply. Any tourist needs to have talent and resolve in abundance, game intelligence and tactical acumen to think on the hoof when facing the greatest team on earth on the field, and off it, the most partisan rugby public in the game.
With a ten game tour, Gatland will need bodies, so I’m plumping for a 37-man squad, replete with a medical staff prepared to work round the clock to keep them functioning. After a fascinating month of Test rugby, in which the Lions were finally given some hope, here’s how the tourists are shaping up…
Full back Stuart Hogg (Sco), Leigh Halfpenny (Wal)
From being the youngest tourist in 2013, Stuart Hogg will be flying the sole saltire as the Lions last line of defence. With a howitzer of a right boot, deft footballing game and a fleetness of foot that is mesmerizing to watch, his forays from deep will match any of those of the rapier-like Ben Smith. Joining him would be 2013’s Player of the Series, Leigh Halfpenny. The Gorseinon-born kicking metronome is not yet up to full gallop, but his accuracy off the deck still puts him in the world’s top three kicker and he simply has to tour. Mike Brown and Rob Kearney narrowly miss out.
Wings Anthony Watson (Eng), George North (Wal), Liam Williams (Wal), Simon Zebo (Ire),
If he shows any of the form of the last 18 months, Anthony Watson takes his place on the right flank. Enough of a footballer to be considered as a future full-back, it’s Watson finishing ability, that has plundered 12 tries in 24 games for England, that sees him starting. On the other side is George North. The most potent attacking force in the Northern Hemisphere, North has a quiet Autumn Series in an impotent Wales attack and now has to deal with the latest concussion furore, but his penetration against the All Black last summer and a backline that complements his muscular skills see him inked in. Pushing for places is Williams, who is equally devastating at full-back and Simon Zebo. Both players are rock solid under the high-ball and possess an unpredictability that unsettles the surest of defences.
Midfield: Robbie Henshaw (Ire), Jonathan Joseph (Eng), Jonathan Davies (Wal), Owen Farell (Eng), Elliot Daly (Eng)
All best midfield partnerships strike a balance and possess a nuanced understanding. At inside-centre, Owen Farrell is a certainty. A Test quality fly-half, his improving distribution skills, defensive edge and big game temperament are precious commodities. Alongside him is the rumbustious Robbie Henshaw who adds muscle, defensive tenacity and a creative intent to a midfield likely to be facing Sonny Bill Williams. Pushing them is Jonathan Joseph who has had a superlative Autumn and is rapid enough to play on the wing. The incumbent at 13, Jonathan Davies, while not a his 2013 peak, has the experience staves off the exciting Garry Ringrose. The final part of the midfield jigsaw is Elliot Daly, who can play in a variety of positions, and has the extra faced of a 50-metre plus boot off the deck.
Fly-half: Jonathan Sexton (Ire) George Ford (Eng)
Jonny Sexton has had his issues with injury in recent years but his class shone against the All Blacks in Chicago. His game-management, ease barking orders and tacit understanding with Conor Murray see him as favourite to call the shots against the world’s most elusive player, Beauden Barrett. His understudy is George Ford, a brilliant footballer, an intelligent distributor but his Test kicking in a pressure-cooker environment is suspect, so he’d need either Farrell or Halfpenny on the pitch for kicking duties. That players of the quality of Finn Russell, Dan Biggar and Sam Davies are left behind, shows the quality of the competition
Scrum-half: Conor Murray (Ire), Rhys Webb (Wal), Ben Youngs (Eng)
If you pick Jonny Sexton at No 10, it makes total sense to pair him with Conor Murray. Murray was the best player grace the turf in Chicago, giving an off-colour Aaron Smith a tortuous time. He is dangerous around the fringes, is a sound decision maker and boast an accurate box kicking game. Rhys Webb, assuming he recovers full from an ankle injury also gave no quarter against Smith in the summer and his truffle-like nose for the try-line and danger around the fringes, see him vying with the dummy-King Ben Youngs, who had a stellar Autumn and toured in 2013 for a bench place. Greig Laidlaw had better keep his phone switched on as first replacement.
Back row: Billy Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau, CJ Stander, Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric, James Haskell
Any backrow needs to be better than the sum its parts and work as a unit. At No 8, the Lions have an embarrassment of riches with Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau both in the world-class bracket. Childhood friends, Vunipola is the more powerful carrier of the two and is now an 80-minute player, while Faletau is the more rounded player, slightly quicker over the ground and a better controller of the ball at the base of the scrum. Both are interchangeable, but Vunipola is a bigger impact player, so Faletau starts. On the blindside flank, CJ Stander, the versatile James Haskell, who would be a brilliant tourist, just nudges the luckless Chris Robshaw out of a place. At openside, you have two muscular sevens in Sean O’Brien and 2013’s captain Sam Warburton, both who could easily play at No 6. Warburton needs a run free from injury, but his experience and close relationship with the head coach should see him tour. Then there’s Justin Tipuric who is in the form of his life. Tipuric brings a speed of thought and deed no other backrow possesses and is the perfect foil for Faletau. He’s the man to nullify the livewire Ardie Savea.
Locks: Alun Wyn Jones (Wal), Jonny Gray (Sco), Maro Itoje (Eng), George Kruis (Ire) Iain Henderson (Ire)
Probably the hardest of positions to choose from. That you can leave Ultan Dillane, Devin Toner, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes at home is instructive of the quality available. Alun Wyn Jones will be a three-time tourist and is vastly experienced. Jones’ offloading, uncompromising personality and a will-to-win, ensures he captains the side. Alongside him is Maro Itoje. The England lock is a once-in-a-generation player and his ability to steal lineout ball and compete at the breakdown make him a certain starter. Jonny Gray will replace his brother in the Lions squad. A remarkable tackler, he has one of the highest workrates in the Northern Hemisphere. Iain Henderson is another huge man, at 6ft 6in and 19st, who can leave ball-carriers flailing for the full game and gives the Lions an option at No 6. The final lock is George Kruis, who dovetails with Itoje so well.
Loosehead: Mako Vunipola (Eng), Jack McGrath (Ire), Gethin Jenkins (Wal)
Jack McGrath has emerged from Cian Healy’s shadow to emerge as the front-runner for No 1 shirt, with his industrious workrate in the loose complementing a powerful set-piece. He’s edged for a starting spot by Mako Vunipola, who is a tight-five forward who can carry hard, step, dummy and even kick, and has a vastly improved scrummaging game. The flnal member of the trio is Gethin Jenkins. The old man of the touring group, he’d be selected for his fourth tour, and his close relationship with Warren Gatland, tackling and breakdown work would be invaluable, with Cian Healy and Joe Marler snapping at his heels.
Hooker: Dylan Hartley (Eng), Jamie George (Eng), Rory Best (Ire)
The three standout hookers in the home nations all tour. Dylan Hartley had Rory Best are both tremendous leaders, with the latter playing some of the best rugby of his life in recent weeks, but to cope with the brilliant Dane Coles, my starting hooker would be Saracen Jamie George. George has a solid set-piece, speed over the ground and offloads like a back. Hartley and Best would vie as backup and are both strong candidates for captaining the midweek sides.
Tighthead: Dan Cole (Eng), Tadhg Furlong (Ire), WP Nel (Sco)
WP Nel, so powerful in the World Cup and Six Nations was a front-runner before the emergence of the bullocking Tadhg Furlong. Against New Zealand he was a force of nature and the 19st Wexford man, would bring a real dynamism to the front row. The most experienced of the trio is England’s Dan Cole, who brings durability and an added dimension at the breakdown.
Lions 23-man squad for First Test
15. Stuart Hogg (Sco)
14. Anthony Watson (Eng)
13. Robbie Henshaw (Ire)
12. Owen Farrell (Eng)
11. George North (Wal)
10. Jonny Sexton (Ire)
9. Conor Murray (Ire)
8. Taulupe Faletau (Wal)
7. Justin Tipuric (Wal)
6. Sean O’Brien (Ire)
5. Alun Wyn Jones (Wal)
4. Maro Itoje (Eng)
3. Tadhg Furlong (Ire)
2. Jamie George (Eng)
1. Mako Vunipola (Eng)
Bench: Dan Cole, Rory Best, Jack McGrath, Jonny Gray, Billy Vunipola, Rhys Webb, George Ford, Elliot Daly