DUBLIN, IRL – Back in September I named my preferences for the starting XV for the British and Irish Lions for their tour the New Zealand later this year.
I was adamant then, and am adamant now, that this tour will mean more than ever for the status of northern hemisphere rugby. The three test matches against the All Blacks are going to be like Groundhog’s Day Lion-Hog’s Day?)…if the Lions see out a series victory then the northern hemisphere will have a new spring in their step, but if they don’t see out at least one victory then it’ll be resigned to six more months of winter, at least until the summer internationals roll back around.
Since September there has been plenty of rugby for players to make their case for a spot on the Lions tour . The autumn internationals have come and gone, domestic leagues have been in full swing, and now the first round of the Six Nations has played out.
It’s time for a second crack at that starting XV.
Whether you agree with me or argue with me, I believe these players have made a strong case for a spot on Warren Gatland’s team.
15) Stuart Hogg (SCO) – Hogg’s inclusion in the starting XV what is the easiest to pick. If his two-try wonder performance against Ireland last Saturday wasn’t enough, he’s been fantastic for Glasgow and has helped the Glaswegians make the Champions Cup quarterfinals. He’s a fantastic strike runner as well as the best opportunistic attacker in rugby at the moment.
14) Sean Maitland (SCO) – Sean Maitland made a very strong case to reclaim a spot in the Lions squad like he did in 2013. The New Zealand-born Scotsman facilitated much of the wide-channel play the Scots deployed against the surprisingly bunched Irish defense, drawing in Irish defenders on the outside to create space for Hogg and Alex Dunbar to make line breaks. Plus, Maitland has good defense of qualities about him, especially his ability to tackle in the open field.
13) Jonathan Joseph (ENG) – Joseph lead England in 2016 with eight tries. He’s scored 13 overall in his 30 caps for the English and is a potent attacker when he gets in form. Joseph’s may be in a long try drought for his club side, Bath, but his international credentials show his ability to step up on the big stage. His stiffest competition so far has come from Welsh Center, Jonathan Davies, who’s performance against the Italians last weekend produced Wales’ first try of the match. The two will face each other this Saturday as England travel to Cardiff.
12) Robbie Henshaw (IRL) – The Leinster center has been big in both the Pro12 and for Ireland, making himself into a powerful offensive runner as well as a strong defender in the midfield. He was a key feature for the Irish in the November tests and has been a staple in Leinster’s achievement of a home quarterfinal in the Champions Cup.
11) Simon Zebo (IRL) – Zebo has been magnificent for club and country since 2015. He’s averaged just below 70 minutes per game this season for Munster and has scored 6 tries in his 10 appearances for the province (combined Pro12 and Champions Cup). He provides an excellent left boot for non-place kicking and is a quality talent under the highball.
10) Paddy Jackson (IRL) – Pragmatism prevails at fly-half at the moment. George Ford was mediocre against France and was replaced by Ben Te’o who ended up scoring England’s game winning try. Dan Biggar had trouble in the first half against the Italians creating and organizing attacking efforts before the entire Welsh team chipped in the second half. Jackson has put in consistently good performances (again South Africa in the summer and New Zealand and Australia in the fall) and finally should get a shot over Sexton who, at this stage, is perpetually injured.
9) Gregg Laidlaw (SCO) – The Scot was on fire last Saturday against the Irish, plain and simple. He keenly directed the flow of the Scottish attack and was able to provide quick ball in the right moments. Laidlaw has more defensive ruggedness then many scrum-halves and has a great boot from the box kick and the tee to match.
8) Billy Vunipola (ENG) – Yes, I do understand that Vunipola is out with knee ligament damage, but there still a chance he may return for the end of the Six Nations and I will hold out for him until I see you stand out performance from either Heaslip, Josh Strauss, or Ross Moriarty.
7) Justin Tipuric (WAL) – Tipuric is by far one of the best tackling loose forwards in the northern hemisphere, reportedly going over 160 tackles without a single missed tackle leading up into January of this year (WalesOnline). He was an outstanding per-say last Saturday against the Italians, but his previous performances in Wales’ internationals in late 2016 as well as his performances for the Ospreys in the Pro12 have been huge, especially for the Welsh domestic side that sits second in the Guinness Pro12 table thanks to a revitalized forward pack.
6) CJ Stander (IRL) – The Irishman exploded onto the scene in 2016 and has made himself into a well-respected footballer known for his ability in forward attacking phases and his ability to create turnovers at the breakdown. His abilities at least forward a very similar to those of the All blacks prize speed in there as forwards as much they do power.
5) Alun Wyn Jones (WAL) – The new Welsh Captain has been quoted on his expectations for perfection and has so far lived up to his role in the captaincy. Having been capped 105 times now for Wales, he has become a staple of success in the world program and has earned generous praise from all over the rugby community. On top of all that he is an excellent ball carrier. I am very keen to see how he steps up against the English this weekend.
4) Richie Gray (SCO) – I still think that either of the Gray Brothers could fill this position, but Richie generally has more of the experience in the #4 jersey. He absolutely had his way at the line-out against Ireland last Saturday and made several runs that broke the gain line, effectively putting Ireland on the back foot through consistent phases and not allowing them to maintain their defensive structure. Richie stepped up and made a huge case for himself, most especially with his organization of Scotland’s defense in the second half.
3) Tadgh Furlong (IRL) – Furlong reaped havoc and destruction on Scotland’s scrum in the first half last Saturday. Allan Dell had a very hard time getting his bearings at the scrum against the Irishman, and Dell is not the first one Furlong has frustrated. He was by far and beyond Ireland’s best player, putting in 60 minutes of crunching work before going off with an injury. He has been ruled questionable for Saturday’s match against the Italians, so I’ll have to see how his injury situation turns out.
2) Rory Best (IRL) – Call me stubborn, but Ireland’s performance against the Scottish did not sway my view of Best as a great hooker. He may not be the best open field long-distance ball carrier, but his ability to attack around the fringes near there try-line, guide forward phases in tight situations, and skillfully marriage set-pieces makes him a great addition to any team. He does a lot of the dirty work on the field, and is unglamorous work makes a huge impact.
1) Jack McGrath (IRL) – Like Furlong, McGrath was excellent for Ireland’s scrum against the Scots. He is a pinnacle of consistency and reliability amongst world loose-heads that are increasingly trending towards better open field abilities and more mediocre set-piece performance. Cian Healy has the ability to break tackles in open space and make long sweeping runs down the field, but his ability at the set-piece doesn’t augment the game in his side’s favor from the set-peace near as much as McGrath is able to do.
I don’t know when I will update these Picks next, but in the meantime make sure to comment with your ideas on my correct Lions XV. Let me know what you think.