We're two rounds down in the Six Nations and approaching the halfway point so which players are getting ahead of their rivals in the race for the Lions?
The British & Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland must be tearing his hair out about who to pick for the squad in New Zealand in the summer, never mind the Test team. But if he had to play the All Blacks at Eden Park tomorrow, who would be in side? Apologies to the players who have not featured in the first couple of rounds of the Six Nations, but if you are not match fit now then you are out with the washing on this one. It will all change but here is a starting XV for now as we head to the cupboard to find our tin hats.
Full-back: Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
No-brainer this one, attack-wise Hogg is miles ahead of his rivals. When we bumped into Gatland a couple of weeks ago he did pick out a couple of defensive mistakes that Hogg made against France, and he has got things to work on at the back. But Hogg is nailed on at the moment. Leigh Halfpenny, Mike Brown and Rob Kearney all have a lot of catching up to do.
Wings: Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly (both England)
Craig Gilroy misses out by a whisker here but we will stick with Eddie Jones’ preference for a work-rate winger and a speedster. Elliot Daly’s try against the Welsh showed his clinical finishing ability, after he had failed to touch down in the corner against France. That marred an otherwise excellent outing on the wing for England and he followed up in Cardiff. Nowell has not been on the score sheet but did well off the bench in the first game and got through a ton of work against Wales when he started.
Centres: Garry Ringrose (Ireland) and Owen Farrell (England)
Owen Farrell played the first two games of the Six Nations at 12 so we’ll keep him there for now but he would be playing, at 10 or 12, if the Test match was being played tomorrow or in June. He might not be captain in this line-up but he would be one of the leaders – England came from behind to win their opening two matches when he was captain on the pitch. Kicks his goals and can pass – what is not to like? Comparing Ringrose to Brian O’Driscoll might be a bit premature but he has done a decent impression of the old master, at the age of 22.
Fly-half: Dan Biggar (Wales)
Biggar might not get in to the tour party in June but he makes the run-on team for tomorrow’s game on the back of a terrific performance, in a losing cause, against England. Under pressure for his Wales spot from Sam Davies Biggar is just the sort of never-give-up merchant who you need against the All Blacks. Not as flamboyant as Davies he is more than just a Steady Eddie as his interception on the Wales line showed.
Scrum-half: Rhys Webb (Wales)
Webb holds off the challenge of Ben Youngs and Conor Murray after a tenacious game against England but all three could easily be on the plane to New Zealand. And if we were playing the All Blacks tomorrow it would be handy to have at least familiar combination in the team. Webb has come back well from an ankle injury and will have a couple of friendly faces to work with in this back row.
Props: Cian Healy (Ireland) and Dan Cole (England)
Healy came off the bench in Ireland’s defeat to Scotland but started in the thumping of Italy. As another loose-head, Joe Marler, told us this week the front rowers have the worst of it against the Italians, they take their scrummage seriously and Healy showed up well here and round the park. Dan Cole, whose international star looked like it was waning, has risen to the challenge posed by the likes of Kyle Sinckler and England’s set-piece was back in decent working order against Wales.
Hooker: Jamie George (England)
George has only had 59 minutes off the bench in England’s opening two games but has impressed both times he has replaced Dylan Hartley. The Saracens man must be wondering how he gets into the England starting XV, well he can start for this Lions’ team. He does everything a hooker should do – throws in well and scrums well – but has more than a few added extras around the park.
Locks: Alun Wyn Jones (Wales,capt) and Jonny Gray (Scotland)
We also bumped into Martin Johnson a few days back and if Johnno says that Alun Wyn Jones is good enough to start and captain the Lions that will do for us. Johnson told us: “He plays well in the second row – he does those second row things. I don’t know the guy but what he says is very sensible.” Gray just squeezes in ahead of a host of other locks who might still get the nod. Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Richie Gray, Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner are all unlucky but 42 tackles from Gray Jnr in two games edges him over the line.
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Back row: Sam Warburton (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland), Ross Moriaty (Wales)
Warburton has done a Chris Robshaw. He got released from the captaincy and is playing out of his skin although Robshaw has not had a chance to get in our potential squad because of injury. Warburton was magnificent against England as was Moriaty until his bizarre substitution early in the second half. Stander’s hat-trick against Italy got the headlines but he is more than just a try-scorer and rarely misses a tackle. He looks like an old-school South African back rower – not surprising really.