After the weekend’s RBS Six Nations finale, with England claiming both top spot and winning a grand slam, it’s about time we look forward to the next big thing for Northern Hemisphere rugby: the 2017 Lions tour. In around a year’s time, the Lions coach (whoever he may be) will choose the extended squad to make the journey down to New Zealand to play against the 2015 Rugby World Cup champions.
It’s worth noting that this is who I would like to see in the starting 15, not necessarily who I think will start. I also won’t be picking players who either didn’t play or played very short roles in this year’s tournament. Here we go:
Back Three – 11. North (Wales) 15. Hogg (Scotland) 14. Watson (England)
Hogg was my standout fullback in this tournament, showing incredible skill and counterattacking quality, shown by the first try in round 5’s clash with Ireland. The way he attacks the line with ball in hand from the back is nothing short of extraordinary. Would Halfpenny have been included in this squad had he been fit? We’ll never know. With Rob Kearney and Mike Brown seeming to be in receding form, and Simon Zebo simply being a winger that can play fullback, there were only two options at 15, Hogg or Wales’ Liam Williams. While Williams had an impressive tournament, Hogg just has that star quality that edges Williams out. This combined with Williams’ inconsistency meant for me Hogg takes my 15 shirt for the Lions.
Wingers will be a positional group where the Lions selectors will have no shortage of quality. There are 6 or 7 different players that could take these positions, but there is only room for two. George North was a rock solid choice, his strength and quickness giving Wales 468 metres in the tournament as well as 4 tries. He is beginning to look like the player the world expects him to be, looking a lot sharper this tournament compared to recent times.
The other spot was open to a lot of players including Ireland’s Andrew Trimble, England’s Jack Nowell and the Scottish pairing of Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour. Seymour would probably be my second choice, and a lot of that decision comes in his outstanding performance against Wales. Watson, however, was England’s choice winger this tournament, with 6 clean breaks and 3 tries. I would keep an eye on this spot though, as form could be an important thing next season as we head towards the tour.
Centres – 12. Roberts (Wales) 13. Joseph (England)
Jamie Roberts was immense this year. The hard-hitting Harlequin gave Wales a solid ball carrier through the midfield as well as stopping anything that came near him with a thunderous collision. While Henshaw played well for Ireland and the possibility of Tuilagi at 12 towards the end of the tournament after making impressive appearances for Leicester prior to his international return, Roberts was key to any success Wales could’ve had. His 46 tournament carries were more than any other Welsh player. And Owen Farrell is shit. He can’t tackle and in all honesty is a bit of a petulant wanker.
Now, I really like Jonathan Davies. I think his inclusion in a Welsh squad is key to unleashing the quality back three players they have. His partnership with Jamie Roberts has only ever improved and they are the best centre partnership in the Northern Hemisphere. However, Jonathan Joseph was just as good for England. And he scored a hat-trick against Italy. And his team won the tournament. So if you need a tie-breaker for this one, look at who was in the winning team. Do I think Jonathan Joseph is the best centre in the NH? No. Do I think he’s the best centre in England? No, I’d sooner pick Daly or Slade. But he’s the one who played, and he’s the one who won. So there.
Half Backs – 9. Care (England) 10. Biggar (Wales)
England look a different side with Danny Care at the helm. He is a fast, sharp runner with ball in hand and gets the ball away quickly from the back of the breakdown. A player like him could help run the All Blacks off their feet next summer. I don’t think the delivery of Laidlaw or Murray are good enough to play for the Lions, and while Gareth Davies played well, as did Rhys Webb when he returned from injury, Care’s form this year has just won it for me.
There was only going to be one fly half in this selection. Jonny Sexton, despite all the hype, simply wasn’t good enough. He improved in games 4 and 5 this year, but a slow start to a Lions tour could put the side 2-0 down in the series with the All Blacks with no hope of a decider. Dan Biggar is a strong defensive player, who is brilliant under the high ball and is a very durable. His contrast with Care could provide a good balance of recklessness and game management, the balance of which could prove key to unlocking the All Blacks next year.
Front Row – 1. Evans (Wales) 2. Hartley (England) 3. Lee (Wales)
These were the toughest decisions to make. The lack of a standout hooker in any of the other home nations means that England captain, and my sworn nemesis, Dylan Hartley, starts for the Lions. Even if it’s only a matter of time before he does something daft and gets sent off. England had a strong lineout this year, and part of that has to be down to Hartley’s arrows. Jamie George was a very good understudy to Hartley, and I think given more game time the Saracen could nudge out Hartley from the side. But Hartley’s the captain, and that’s just how the cards fall.
Jack McGrath would make my Lions bench over both Vunipola and Marler, but the number of penalties he gives away is just too high. Rob Evans proved himself as a solid scrummager with good ball in hand aspects this tournament. As Wales look away from the status quo of Gethin Jenkins to start with Paul James to come off the bench at 60 minutes, Evans put his hand up as a long-term solution to what was an area of concern for Wales, given their only other choices not getting any younger.
Before anyone says Dan Cole is the best tighthead prop in the world AGAIN, have a look at the game against France. If the England team all played to the standard of Dan Cole, they’d have been beaten by 50 points. He is not a good scrummager. He isn’t that good around the park. He would be my fourth choice behind Samson Lee, Mike Ross and WP Nel (in that order). Samson Lee is part of the young core in the Welsh squad, and could go on more than just one Lions tour in his career. Mike Ross is a brick wall in the set piece for Ireland but doesn’t offer much around the park. I’m not saying Samson Lee is a fitness icon, but the little ginger kid from west Wales can get the job done.
Second Row – 4. Itoje (England) 5. Jones (Wales)
What a positional group. The strength in depth here is absolutely outstanding. Alun-Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Devin Toner, the Gray brothers. That isn’t even the full list of people that could make it to New Zealand next year.
I couldn’t not pick Itoje. The young England lock has proven himself and then some. He plays with a poise and well roundedness that you would not expect from one so young. And he just so happens to be a freak athlete. Not many second row players make Alun-Wyn Jones look old and out of shape, but in the Wales v England game Itoje stood out as the future in both the English and British camps.
Rightly so to pair him with an experienced head like Alun-Wyn. Playing two strong, athletic locks against the All Blacks could prove important against a pack lead by the likes of Kieran Read and Brody Retallick.
Back Row – 6. Stander (Ireland) 8. Faletau (Wales) 7. Hardie (Scotland)
Another group where the suitors for these positions break double figures. In the end, the decision to choose Ireland’s CJ Stander influenced the decision at 8. The carrying abilty from Stander (79 carries in the tournament) meant that the decision to leave Billy Vunipola out wasn’t too difficult. Faletau offers a higher work rate, having made a whopping 65 tackles this year as well as offering a solid ball carrying option. Note that I don’t think either Faletau or Vunipola will start. Nathan Hughes, once available for selection by England, will become the England and British & Irish number 8. But he didn’t play in the tournament this year.
Openside was a difficult decision to make. Haskell was impressive, logging the highest tackle count from the England squad. Warburton was more than solid in his appearances but his selection is not guaranteed. I would look to either Hardie or Warburton to start at 7, with the other providing cover in the match day 23. Hardie just nudges out Warburton with his astonishingly high work rate.
Lions Captain Choice – Alun-Wyn Jones.
All stats collected from http://www.rbs6nations.com