Now that the 6 Nations is over for another year, it is time to start looking ahead to the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand this summer. With the squad being named on April 19th, there is very little time remaining for players to prove to Warren Gatland they deserve a place on the flight. Though Gatland has name-checked a number of individuals who have missed the 6 Nations through injury this year, it is likely that the vast majority of players picked will have been featuring in the 6 Nations over the last couple of months. While this is a great chance for players to prove they deserve to be there, a poor tournament could also see players dropping down the pecking order and now being at risk of missing out a place in the Test matches, or missing out on selection completely.
Finn Russell: Owen Farrell is in my opinion the best fly half available for the tour, but his performances at inside centre for England have been so good he is likely being considered for the 12 shirt in the Test matches. If this is the case, you would expect Johnny Sexton to be Gatland’s Test fly half, but he will likely pick at least one other fly half to take on tour. Dan Biggar had a poor 6 Nations and George Ford may miss out due to his lack of physicality making him a target for New Zealand’s gargantuan centres. Though I doubt he would make the Test squad, Finn Russell would provide the expansive style of play that conditions in the South would encourage, but he has also developed enough as a player to be able to control the game with his kicking from hand and is also a reliable goal kicker. I can’t see him featuring in the Test squad unless there were injuries, but think he could get a lot of game time in the widweek team.
Elliot Daly: With the Lions playing 10 games in just over a month, it helps to have a couple of players versatile enough to cover a number of positions. Step forward Elliot Daly! A regular at outside centre or full back for Wasps and now apparently England’s first choice winger during the 6 Nations, his versatility and reliability reminds me of Ben Smith. In my opinion he was the best performing winger in the 6 Nations this year, so I feel that he has to be on the plane and could even propel himself into the 23 for the Tests with some good performances midweek.
Billy Vunipola: If there was ever a bad time to miss a 6 Nations through injury, it’s in the year of a Lions tour. Yet this absence may have actually helped Billy Vunipola. Before the tournament, it’s fair to say Taulupe Faletau was his closest competition for the number 8 shirt in the Test matches. However with Ross Moriarty – perhaps himself a bolter for the Lions squad – keeping the starting spot for Wales, and with Jamie Heaslip’s surgery possibly ruling him out of the tour, it looks like Vunipola’s place in the Test 23 is almost guaranteed. He didn’t have the best of days against Ireland (did anyone in white?) but I feel that this was due to his quick return from injury and I’m sure we will see him desperate to impress for Saracens over the next few weeks.
Rhys Webb: After the Autumn Internationals, it’s fair to say that Ben Youngs, Conor Murray and Greig Laidlaw were likely the favourites to travel to New Zealand. Laidlaw’s injury and Youngs’ drop in form this season has blown this selection wide open and Rhys Webb, back in the international fold after a number of badly timed injuries, certainly took his chance in the 6 Nations. He was one of the best performers in the Welsh team during the tournament and I fully expect him to be in the 23 to face the All Blacks. Depending on what Gatland wants from his scrum half, it’s very possible he could even be the starter.
Taulupe Faletau: He may be arguably one of the best number 8s in the world, but the 2016/17 season has so far been one Faletau will want to forget. A series of injuries have limited his appearances for Bath and he was unable to get his starting spot in the Welsh team back from Ross Moriarty during the 6 Nations. Gatland certainly knows what he can do from his time with Wales so he will almost certainly still be on the plane, but with a number of players impressing in the back row over the last 2 months his chances of a place in the starting XV for the Tests may be in jeopardy.
Ben Youngs: After winning the Grand Slam in 2016 and having been named England’s player of the Autumn Series, it looked like Youngs was in prime position to challenge for the number 9 shirt against New Zealand. However a drop in form for both Leicester and England has put him under real pressure and his England rival Danny Care outscored him 3 tries to 1 while generally providing quicker ball during the 6 Nations. Barring injury, Webb and Murray are surely to top 2 scrum halves, Youngs will likely need to fight against Care, Gareth Davies and Greig Laidlaw (if he recovers in time) for the final spot in the touring party.
Dylan Hartley: He may have just captained England to back-to-back 6 Nations titles but Hartley’s place on the plane to New Zealand is anything but assured. Ken Owens and Rory Best had arguably better 6 Nations and Jamie George could feasibly be preferred to his captain. It’s not to say that Hartley is a poor player, he is very good at what he does and is reliable in the set piece, but he does not appear to bring as much to the team in open play as his rivals do and his disciplinary record could also count against him.
The good news is that we do not have to wait much longer to see who Warren Gatland chooses for his touring party. It will be interesting to see how many players are picked on form and how many appear to be picked on their reputation. It’s almost impossible to accurately guess the Lions selections due to the sheer number of eligible players that have featured for their national teams. There is also the potential for a bolter who has impressed for his club but not really featured for his country, which is highly possible with players like Semesa Rokoduguni and Denny Solomona looking very good in the Premiership this year.
Do you think that I missed anyone? Who do you think improved or hampered their Lions chances during the tournament? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge