As the new campaign kicks off, Alex Shaw picks seven players – all Lions – under extra pressure to perform if they're to make the plane to New Zealand next summer
British and Irish Lions fever is beginning to descend.
The 2016/17 domestic seasons begin in the home nations this weekend and whilst players’ attentions will be solely focused on performing at club and international level over the coming months, there’s no doubt a spare thought or two at the back of their minds will be lingering on the Lions’ tour of New Zealand next summer.
The tourists are coming off the back of a winning trip to Australia in 2013 under the stewardship of Warren Gatland and a number of the Kiwi’s favoured lieutenants from that tour are likely to be back in that famous red jersey next year.
Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Cole and Alun Wyn Jones are surely nailed on to return among the forwards, whilst Owen Farrell, George North and Stuart Hogg are almost certain to be integral parts of the back-line.
There are a number of 2013 tourists, however, who will need to turn in stellar seasons to ensure they’re on the plane back to the southern hemisphere this time around. We take a look at seven of the players in need of an eye-catching season…
Cian Healy, Ireland
Injuries have played havoc with Healy’s career of late, not to mention curtailing his tour in 2013, and he will need to stay fit this year to keep his name in the mix for a loosehead spot. He toured with Mako Vunipola, Alex Corbisiero and Gethin Jenkins in 2013 and although the latter two are out of the equation now, the former has improved significantly since then. Combined with the emergence of Joe Marler and Jack McGrath, durability concerns mean that Healy will have his work cut out to make the squad.
Jonathan Davies, Wales
The upcoming coach announcement will have a strong bearing on what type of centres travel to New Zealand and if Gatland, as is expected, is named coach, that will be a big tick in Davies’s favour. England’s Jonathan Joseph and Scotland’s Mark Bennett have been the standout outside-centres among the home nations these past couple of years and Davies will be hoping that a move back to the Scarlets helps him hit top gear at both domestic and Test levels.
Manu Tuilagi, England
Tuilagi has to contend with the same issues as Healy and Davies, with injury having derailed his career of late and a number of promising players stepping up to fill the void in his absence. The aforementioned duo of Joseph and Bennett are shining at outside-centre, whilst Tuilagi’s proposed move to inside-centre would see him have to contend with the likes of Robbie Henshaw, Jamie Roberts and possibly Farrell. If he can prove his fitness, Tuilagi may be too destructive and talented to omit, but that’s a big if at this point in time.
Richie Gray, Scotland
The towering second-row was one of just a three-man Scottish contingent in the original squad in 2013 and his place on the 2017 tour is anything but certain. There should be a larger Scottish contribution next year but second-row is arguably the most competitive spot in the entire squad. Welshman Jones is a given, as surely are the English duo of Maro Itoje and George Kruis, potentially leaving just two spots to be duked out over. With Richie’s younger brother Jonny making waves, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes knocking on England’s door, and Bradley Davies and Iain Henderson also in the mix, Gray has a tough battle ahead.
Rory Best, Ireland
Best made the last tour as a replacement for the suspended Dylan Hartley and struggled to displace Richard Hibbard and Tom Youngs as Gatland’s favoured options. With Hibbard and Youngs both out of Test rugby recently, Best’s prospects would seem to have brightened, but his age and a lack of consistency with his throwing will be working against him. Hartley has cleaned up his act and looks sure to tour, but there are plenty of unknowns after that. A solid season with Ireland and Ulster could propel Best back into the mix.
Tom Youngs, England
A recall to Eddie Jones’s provisional EPS will have buoyed Youngs coming into this season and if Gatland, a well-known admirer of Youngs’s ability, is announced as Lions coach, things will really begin to look up for the Leicester hooker. If there is any intention to go like-for-like against Dane Coles in New Zealand, Youngs would likely be at the top of the Lions’ shortlist. But as with Davies and Tuilagi, the identity of the coach – and his preferred game plan – will dictate a lot at the hooker position.
Leigh Halfpenny, Wales
Three years ago you would have said that Halfpenny was a certainty to tour again in 2017 but a lot has happened in that time. Scotland’s Hogg has taken his game to an even higher level, England’s Mike Brown has been one of the most consistent performers in northern hemisphere rugby and Liam Williams has taken every opportunity that Halfpenny’s injuries have afforded him. If Halfpenny can get through the season with Toulon unscathed, he will certainly be in the mix, but the Top 14 season is a long and gruelling one, and could yet take its pound of flesh from Halfpenny.