The Summer Tests pitted North v South, with England's players doing themselves no harm in selection for the 2017 Lions tour, here's our picks based on form...
With the summer tours done and dusted thoughts turn to next year’s adventure to New Zealand with the British & Irish Lions. But what would the Lions team look like if they were playing the world champions in their own backyard tomorrow? The last time the tourists won a Test in New Zealand, in Wellington in 1993, the starting line-up contained 11 Englishmen and if they played tomorrow it would probably have a similar number. Players who were involved on tours but got injured have found a miracle cure and are eligible but if you missed a tour you are struggling to get in. As it is a one-off game, Eddie Jones can find the time to coach the team. It will probably look a lot different next summer but, with our tin hat at the ready, here goes…
Full-back – Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Hogg gets the nod although Liam Williams could just as easily have played here. Hogg was voted Player of the Tournament in the Six Nations and has carried that form on whilst Mike Brown was not at his best on England’s trip to Australia but improved in the final game. Alex Goode must be wondering what he has to do to get a game but expect the odds on Leigh Halfpenny being part of the conversation in 11 months.
Wings –Liam Williams (Wales) and George North (Wales)
You have to get Williams in somewhere after his barnstorming play took it to the All Blacks in New Zealand where he was Wales’ best player by a mile and probably would have got into a combined team. North played just one Test on the tour before being laid low by a hamstring injury but he is a class act and feared by the Kiwis.
Centres – Jonathan Joseph (England) and Owen Farrell (England)
An honourable mention for Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw here but we are going to stick with the English combo that helped whitewash Australia. Joseph’s form went up a notch from anything he did in the spring, and his defence is strangely undervalued, whilst Farrell is approaching world-class. He kicked 23 from 26 goals in the three Tests and the Lions will need every point they can get against the world champions.
Fly-half – George Ford (England)
Ford went to Australia in a slump after missing his kicks, and being booed, against Wales and being part of an under-achieving Bath team in the English season. Three weeks later he is back on top of his game after being thrown on after half an hour in Brisbane and his tactical kicking and running of the back line was a huge part of England’s series win. Johnny Sexton missed Ireland’s trip to South Africa but will return to challenge.
Scrum-half – Conor Murray (Ireland)
Ben Youngs had his three best England games for a while down under and is still struggling to get in the match-day 23. Murray scored the decisive try in Ireland’s first Test win and was a constant thorn in South Africa’s flesh whilst Wales’ Rhys Webb is unlucky to only be on the bench.
Props – Mako Vunipola (England) and Dan Cole (England)
Vunipola has improved his scrummaging, is still good round the park and is in the form of his life so he edges in front of Jack McGrath. Leicester’s Cole looked cooked as an international player in the World Cup but has come again and cut out the silly penalties. Eddie Jones name-checked him as one of the players who had improved most on England’s tour – not a bad trick at 29.
Hooker – Dylan Hartley (England, captain)
You would have got decent odds about Hartley playing for England again after he missed the World Cup but was given the national captaincy and has helped revive the set-piece. Throws in well, scrums well and that is what good hookers do, everything else is froth. Tough, abrasive and an absolute revelation as captain to anyone unfamiliar with his stint in the job at Northampton.
Locks – Maro Itoje (England) and Iain Henderson (Ireland)
Tough on Alun Wyn Jones and George Kruis, but Itoje and Henderson were the outstanding locks in the summer Tests. One day in the future Itoje might have a bad game but it might not be anytime soon and Henderson was massive when the chips were down and Ireland were reduced to 13 and 14 men in their first Test win in Cape Town over the Boks. Plenty of contenders here, with Jonny Gray not far away.
Flankers – James Haskell (England) and Chris Robshaw (England)
Striking whilst the iron is hot with these two – the game is tomorrow, remember – who are in the form of their lives and invigorated under Jones. Haskell, who says the closest he has been to the Lions is London Zoo, was England’s best player, at seven, in the first two Test matches against Australia and Robshaw has been a revelation since copping it after the World Cup. Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien are sure to be in the frame in a year’s time but these two will do for now.
Number 8 – Billy Vunipola (England)
The fight for the No.8 shirt in New Zealand next year between Vunipola and the ultra-consistent Taulupe Faletau will be one of the match-ups of the tour but Big Billy gets first dibs here after an astonishing season. Jones made him a vice-captain, told him he was an 80-minute player and got him fit enough to be one. Left a trail of destruction from Edinburgh to Sydney.
Jamie George (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), WP Nel (Scotland), Courtney Lawes (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Elliot Daly (England)
We have gone for a 6-2 split here, as England did against the Australians, as we are take the All Blacks on up front and will need the cavalry to come charging on in the second half. George is unlucky he plays in the same position as his national captain whilst McGrath and Nel will keep the pressure on at scrum-time whilst Lawes covers back and second row and has been revitalised.
Jones is world-class and CJ Stander gets the vote ahead of Jack Clifford. Rhys Webb is unlucky not to start and with only one spot left on the bench Daly covers all the other bases despite just nine minutes of action in Australia.