The 2017 RBS Six Nations will have given Warren Gatland sleepless nights so far.
England have been poor, but they’ve been winning. How will this sit with the former Wales head coach? Does it show grit and ‘know how to win’ mentality? Or does it show that there are a few cracks in the world number 2 team – cracks which the All Blacks would capitalise on (No Ali Williams joke intended).
Scotland have been immense. Name a better full-back in the World than Stuart Hogg right now? Defensively may be the only question mark over his head, however he looks assured of a starting spot. However, has the rise in Scottish rugby come too late for this Lions tour? A lot of players perhaps deserve a spot, but is one successful Six Nations enough to justify players such as Tommy Seymour a starting spot over the likes of Liam Williams or Jack Nowell?
Ireland haven’t shown vast improvements from their shock win over the All Blacks in Chicago – however does this feat give them brownie points when it comes to selection? Being a big fan of Chris Robshaw, it pains me to say that I think CJ Stander is nailed on for that number 6 shirt. Robshaw has been extremely unlucky to get injured at such a crucial time, not just for England but in his own career as well, this would probably have been his last shot at a Lions tour. His absence showed during ‘Ruck Gate’ against Italy, a calm head displaying Sir Clive Woodward’s TCUP theory was required, and Robshaw would have delivered.
Wales have been on a downward spiral since the 2015 World Cup. They punched above their weight then due to the large number of injuries – but since these injured players have returned, have they really improved the team? I’d say no. Rhys Webb looks like he’d be a nightmare to play against – however sits below Murray and Youngs in the pecking order for me. Liam Williams also looks threatening but was exposed under the high ball against France. Will Gatland favour ‘his’ team when it comes to selection? Stating that watching England beat Wales was tough to watch doesn’t fill me with confidence…a lack of professionalism in my opinion.
So with all this considered, how do you pick your 2017 British and Irish Lions starting XV to face the All Blacks in the first test at Eden Park on the 24th June? I think the easiest way to pick your team is by picking your MIDWEEK team first – who is good enough to tour but has question marks over their heads?
1. Joe Marler
Having made the quickest comeback from a broken leg in human history (“thanks to milk”) Marler has been a rock in England’s pack this campaign, not just in the scrum but in defence as well. With many picking Mako Vunipola ahead of him and Jack McGrath and Cian Healy battling out the number 1 shirt in Ireland – Marler will have the opportunity to earn that 1st XV opportunity by starting in the midweek team.
2. Dylan Hartley
He’s proven his leadership skills with England, dragging them out of the ditch they’d been put in after the 2015 World Cup. Eddie Jones has brought the best out of him, however I don’t believe he’s the best hooker in Europe. I think Gatland will prefer the ever reliable Rory Best, and will look for one of Eddie Jones’ finishers in Jamie George off the bench.
3. WP Nel
With such a strong claim to be starting in the 1st XV, like many of the players in this team – injury has robbed them. Tadhg Furlong and Dan Cole have excelled over the Six Nations period and would claim my 1st XV starting and replacement spots respectively. Kyle Sinckler would be my X factor player coming off the bench for Nel.
4. Joe Launchbury
Hardest position to pick. He has had a phenomenal Six Nations. Many will argue he deserves to start or at least be on the bench. I’d welcome this argument..there’s several second row combinations I’d be perfectly happy with. However, I can’t see Gatland overlooking Alun Wyn Jones, and Maro Itoje doesn’t know how to lose. Jonny Gray’s meteoric rise has made this position the trickeist to pick, however either would do a job whatever team they’re in.
5. George Kruis
With so much competition in the second row, Kruis’ injury has unfortunately moved him down the pecking order. With Maro Itoje the new powerful and athletic hybrid version of a second row forward and the experience and leadership of Alun Wyn Jones, I can’t see Kruis breaking his way back into the 1st XV from club appearances alone. The Gray brothers, Launchbury and Lawes all have a claim to make as well, however on his day Kruis edges them.
6. Chris Robshaw
With a poorly timed injury combined with well timed form for CJ Stander, Chris Robshaw drops to my second team. Robshaw’s leadership and professionalism will make him a great person to have around the squad, but Stander currently holds that 6 shirt and Robshaw doesn’t offer enough versatility off the bench to justify a replacement position for me.
7. Sam Warburton
The combination of Robshaw and Warburton has finally arrived – perhaps not in the team we would have expected. For me, Tipuric and Haskell are better options against the All Blacks. They carry more and are more aggressive. The only thing that might work in Warburton’s favour was Gatland’s tendancy to pick him over Tipuric when he was in charge of Wales.
8. Jamie Heaslip
Perhaps a surprise to some of you. However, Billy Vunipola is the best number 8 in Europe in my opinion, and with Faletau returning from injury I can see Gatland favouring him over Heaslip. Heaslip’s experience will be invauable to what will be a fairly inexperienced Lions squad. Ross Moriarty is making a late claim however. Creating, arguably, the best back row the midweek Lions team has ever seen.
9. Rhys Webb
With Murray and Youngs playing so well, it’s no surprise that they would be my starting and replacement scrum halves. Which one starts yet I don’t know, but what I do know is Rhys Webb would push both of them to train harder, and wouldn’t be out of his depth in the midweek team that’s for sure.
10. Finn Russell
Finn Russell has been fantastic thus far in the Six Nations. He’s pulled the strings for Scotland and his goal kicking has been sound since taking over from the injured Greig Laidlaw. However, with the likes of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell to compete with, I can’t see him claiming that starting 10 shirt. Biggar off the bench.
11. Elliot Daly
With such competition amongst the back 3, I don’t think Daly will get any game time for the 1st XV. Performing so well in a position many would say isn’t his best has been a double edged sword for him. His long range kicking and electric pace adds a new dyanism to this team. However, there are more established wingers ahead of him at the moment.
12. Scott Williams
Whether Gatland starts Farrell at 10 or 12 is likely to depend on Sexton’s fitness. However with Henshaw also pushing for a starting spot. The midweek 12 is contested between Scott Williams, Alex Dunbar, and Ben Te’o. You also wonder if Gatland would consider some of the 2013 alumni in Jamies Roberts or Manu Tuilagi.. However, the partnership between Williams and Davies has been reliable for Wales, something Gatland would want to maintain.
13. Jonathan Davies
Davies will be determined to emulate his success in the 2013 Lions tour to Australia. However, the form Jonathan Joseph is in combined with Gatlands favourability of the back 3 and half backs on the bench sees Davies drop into the midweek team, where he will be closely competing with the upcoming star that is Garry Ringrose.
14. George North
Has been a shadow of his former self. Does he make this team based on his name and reputation? Too an extent yes. His physicality is almost unrivalled on the wing, however he needs to recapture his old form to get anywhere near starting for the 1st XV.
15. Mike Brown
Although a contender for the 1st XV shirt, Mike Brown’s reliability under the high ball isn’t enough to outdo Stuart Hogg’s phenomenal attacking ability. Before the Six Nations I would’ve said Brown’s defence gives him a strong chance of starting ahead of Hogg, but he was beaten far too easily by Campagnaro against Italy. Halfpenny’s versatility and kicking ability will earn him a place on the bench ahead of Brown.
All of these players have the opportunity to claim a 1st XV shirt.. isn’t that what the midweek team is for?
1st XV to follow…
Let me know your thoughts!
Sport Marketing Student
Leeds Beckett University