The Lions are well-known for surprise packages so don't be surprised if eyebrows are raised at Warren Gatland's squad announcement. Here are a few players to watch...
From Will Greenwood in 1997, to Keith Earls in 2009, the selection announcement for the Lions tour always springs its surprises. And with eight months to go until Warren Gatland’s team is unveiled, its worth noting a few potential candidates, and preparing for the unexpected.
One of the swiftest players in the Premiership, an arcing run from Elliot Daly at outside-centre usually means one thing; five points. The 23-year-old has acceleration to match most international wingers. Indeed, Daly has been ‘the next big thing’ since 2010 when he thrust himself into the public consciousness yet he only made his Test bow last season, after Eddie Jones selected him for the Six Nations, getting a run out against Ireland.
The centre is a lethal finisher, and genuine threat from anywhere on the field. He was selected for a Barbarians XV that faced off against the 2013 Lions in Hong Kong, and he has an outside shot of switching sides, next year. Although a 13, Daly is comfortable to play anywhere in the outside backs. And with a demanding mid-week schedule awaiting the Lions in New Zealand, Gatland might just need a jack of all trades. One who can kick goals from 55 metres…
Hughes qualified for residency on June 27, just days after England’s 3-0 series triumph Down Under, and he was helicoptered straight into Eddie Jones’ provisional squad. The gargantuan No 8 has made a telling impression on Aviva Premiership fans ever since his inaugural season back in 2013, with outstanding performances, week-in, week-out from the base of the Wasps scrum.
Athletic, powerful and deceptively quick, Hughes is a natural footballer whose name regularly appears at the top of ball-carrying and offloading lists. For all of his domestic prowess, Hughes is untested on the international stage. For now, the Fijian-born-back-rower stands in the shadow of Billy Vunipola, whose devastating form of late makes him favourite for the Lions No 8 jersey but given the opportunity, Hughes could challenge both Big Billy and Taulupe Faletau for a berth in the Lions backrow.
The 22-year-old flanker has become a fan favourite at Kingsholm, having earned 63 appearances for the Cherry & Whites in four seasons. Part of the first ever England U20s team to win a Junior World Championship back in 2013, Moriarty who was born on Merseyside, but grew up in Swansea, pledged his senior allegiance to Wales two years later, and has featured in nine Tests, where he is now putting serious pressure on Dan Lydiate for the No 6 shirt.
Moriarty had a coming-of-age tour against the All Blacks in the summer and started off the season with a blockbusting performance against Leicester last weekend, showcasing his agression in the tight exchanges and handling skills in the wide channels, putting away Matt Scott. With a father, Paul, and uncle, Richard, renowned for playing on the edge with Wales, Moriarty’s physicality and pace, as a former full-back, could yet earn him a plane ticket.
The Ospreys fly-half was in impeccable from the kicking tee in the first round of the Pro 12 last weekend, slotting a perfect nine kicks from nine, on the way to giving Zebre a 59-5 drubbing. After a season in which he was named ‘Young Player of the Season’ at the Pro12 awards, Davies is expected to kick on this year. A gifted footballer, he likes to mix his game up, attacking the defensive line with intent and rifling wiper-kicks and 50-yard touchfinders at will with a sumptuous left-boot.
Like many fly-halves, his slight stature means his Achilles Heel is his defence but the former Junior IRB Player of the Year has time to improve that aspect of his game. As the son of former Wales centre Nigel Davies, Sam is expected to put club colleague Dan Biggar under serious pressure for the Welsh No 10 shirt. If he succeeds, it would boost his own chances of a unexpected call from a certain ‘Warren G’ in May.
His older brother Richie was part of the successful Lions tour to Australia four years ago, and Jonny could fill the same role in Warren Gatland’s side next year. The 22-year-old, who is in his second year as captain for the Glasgow Warriors, has already won 25 Test caps and become an integral part of the Scotland boiler room.
At 6ft 6in and 119kg, Gray doesn’t lack in stature and shares similar characteristics to his celebrated All Black contemporaries Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick; a prodigious workrate and a tackle count that regularly reaches into double figures. The Glasgow Warrior spent three months in New Zealand developing his rugby in 2012, after being named the recipient of the John Macphail Scholarship – gaining knowledge of Kiwi forward play that could prove invaluable to the touring Lions team. With the likes of George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson, Gray faces a mighty battle to tour.
Tommy Seymour has been Scotland’s first-choice wing since 2013 and he showcased his innate finishing ability in Glasgow’s opening Pro 12 match against Connacht last weekend, with two tries. If he can help propel the Warriors to Pro12 success, don’t bet against him being in with a chance of a window seat in Warren Gatland’s Lions squad.
2015 was something of a breakthrough year for Seymour as he played to a wider audience, scoring four tries in as many games at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and picking up last year’s Pro 12 Try of the Season award. With New Zealand’s Super Rugby powerhouses boasting wingers who provide a steady highlight reel of stellar tries, the inclusion of Seymour could act as a fitting counterbalance.
Twelve months ago, few had heard of Dillane outside the Sportsground in Galway, but the Parisien-born lock had a stratospheric 2015, turning in five senior appearances for Joe Schmidt’s men since making his debut against England in last season’s Six Nations. After starting his rugby career out on the flank, Dillane’s strengths are as a dynamic ball carrier who mixes technical skill with a fierce competitive drive.
After impressing for Connacht last season and picking up a Pro12 winners medal for his trouble, the 22-year-old continued to mature in South Africa this summer and despite Connacht’s surprise capitulation at the hands of Glasgow, it’s unlikely to harm Dillane’s Test prospects. If Schmidt gives him more international exposure, Dillane has the potential to surprise us all.
Such is the excitement around Garry Ringrose, that demands were made for the Leinster centre’s inclusion in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad in his first season of domestic rugby. At 6ft 2ins, the 21-year-old is an increasing physical presence – he’s packed on a few kilos over the past 12 months – with a solid defence, neat footwork and an ability to ghost outside defenders, which is a key trait of a natural 13.
The Dublin man was a nominee for Junior Player of the Year in 2014 and his centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw has the potential to make Leinster fans move on from Messrs O’Driscoll and D’Arcy. Ringrose also has the chance of impressing Warren Gatland in November, when Ireland take on the All Blacks over two Tests – the only home nation to do so before the Lions tour. If selected for those Tests, Ringrose will know that a career-best performance could be rewarded with a Lions spot. Stranger things have happened.