Northern hemisphere rugby needs a momentum-shifting victory more than ever, and it really can’t come soon enough.
If the Rugby Championship-themed World Cup semifinals were wake up calls to the northern hemisphere’s rugby powers, England were the only ones who answered the call, humbling Michael Chekka’s Australia over the summer.
But, there’s hope…The 2017 British and Irish Lions…
When the Lions travel to face the daunting All Blacks they’ll need speed, power, and dynamism to earn a test series victory. New Zealand have been nothing short of brilliant since 2011 and, in this case, the only way to fight fire is with fire. Head coach Warren Gatland has a lot on his plate with time restraints and the weight of expectations on his shoulders, but he’s been in this situation before…something tells me he’s up for the challenge.
Even though the tour is still a good ways off and the European leagues are in the early stages, let’s have a crack at Gatland’s starting XV for the Lions first test against New Zealand.
15) Stuart Hogg – I’m confident in saying that Hogg is the best attacking fullback in Europe at the moment mostly thanks to his improved kicking game in open play. His pick-up speed is incredible and can single-handedly change the pace and direction of attack.
14) Tommy Seymour – His performance against Leinster last weekend solidified his spot in my preliminary Lions XV. His touchline awareness has improved over the last few years and he’s become prolific in creating front-foot ball from the set piece.
13) Robbie Henshaw – Outside-Center will be a pick-em for Gatland considering his options, but Robbie Henshaw’s performances against South Africa made him look comfortable in the 13 jersey. He runs good lines in attack and is better than most in open field tackling which is why he starts on my team.
12) Jamie Roberts – The rugby league convert has been a staple of Gatland’s Welsh team for the last few years and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. For Jamie Roberts it’s simple: he’s a brute necessary to shut down the Kiwi midfield attack.
11) Anthony Watson – He’s proven himself at fullback and wing for both England and Bath, and his speed is similar to, if not better than both Hogg and Seymour.
10) George Ford – Dan Biggar might be the first choice for many pundits selecting their starting XV, but George Ford is the better choice. If his last two performances for Bath or any indication of his current form, he’s playing nothing less then inspired. What Ford lacks in physical stature, he makes up for in creativity and vision that will be necessary to out-wit and out-play New Zealand’s defense.
9) Ben Youngs – It’s a tossup between Ben Youngs and Conner Murray for this starting scum-half spot, but Gatland has had some apprehension towards Murray in the past. Plus, with the form that Munster is in at the moment, there won’t be too many spots for Murray to strut his stuff unless they start making a turn around on the pitch.
8) Billy Vunipola* – The big man captains my Lions team thanks to his experience and the lack of disciplinary action against him. He’s big, he’s strong, and he has consistently improved over his career. He’s easily one of the best #8 in the world in my book. I imagine he’ll be rested against some of the Super Rugby teams, allowing Jamie Heaslip to get in a few starts.
7) Sam Warburton – A stalwart in the Gatland regime, Warburton easily gets a starting spot, no explanation needed.
6) Taulupe Faletau – He brings a dynamic to the field that will work well opposite Warburton, especially with the two tall, powerful locks in Henderson and Itoje. He brings a needed injection of pace to the back row that will help balance out the sheer size and power of the rest of the pack.
5) Iain Henderson – Henderson has been excellent for Ulster and has been consistent on the international level. I would be hard-pressed to have anyone else start in the 5 shirt.
4) Maro Itoje – He’s absolutely burst onto the scene and made a name for himself as one of the most intelligible locks in Europe. He’s already been to a Champions Cup and won the Aviva Premiership, all at the age of 21. His pairing alongside Henderson will be a good match of youth to experience, power to speed.
3) WP Nel – Dan Cole has a solid shot at the tight head position, especially with Leicester regaining form, but Nel has the upper hand when it comes to scrummaging. He’s now a centurion for Edinburgh and has been an invaluable part of that club’s fabric. There is added incentive for Nel to earn the starting position, as Lions selection and good performances could easily attract big-money clubs in France.
2) Dylan Hartley – Hartley has been touted by many to take the captaincy, but even if he has “changed”, I still don’t believe he has the character to be captain.
1) Mako Vunipola – Although his brother was a big hit from the beginning of his career, Mako has really had to go out and earn his position. With a similar build to his brother, Mako has surprising speed for a prop and has had consistent quality performance domestically.
The Lions haven’t beaten the All Blacks in a test series since 1971, but Gatland’s men might just be the right combination to knock them off their pedestal.
Do you agree with my team? Let me know what you think in the comments…
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