With the Six Nations starting this weekend, the hearts of all Northern Hemisphere rugby fans will beat a little bit faster in anticipation of those frosty encounters on bitter winter afternoons that make up this great tournament. Rivalries wait to be reignited. Fierce battles from history are recounted. Legends sit in stands, purring about the youthful talent that has replaced them on the pitch. Fans wait for the first whistle, singing anthems with hearty voice and becoming pundits in pubs up and down the country.
This year the anticipation in the build up to the tournament will be even greater than normal. There is the introduction of bonus points, meant to inspire more free-flowing, attacking rugby capable of matching the Southern Hemisphere giants. The Home Nations are resurgent; England have gone a year unbeaten, Ireland have recorded victories over Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in the last 12 months, and Scotland have the greatest strength in depth they have possessed in living memory. Even France and Italy have new competitiveness after valiant performances in the autumn, with the Azzurri recording their first victory over South Africa under the tutelage of the impressive Conor O’Shea.
To add to this intrigue, this year sees the return of the British and Irish Lions, who set out this summer on tour to New Zealand. But, while this tour looks like an unenviable task – facing the World Champions with little more than a month’s preparation – the old magic of tradition will inspire this newly emblazoned pride of Lions, buoyed by recent successes over the Southern Hemisphere, to great heights and, hopefully, a victorious tour, guided by the wily Warren Gatland.
But, before they set sail on that grand adventure, there are the most impressive set of trial matches at stake in the Six Nations. Pundits, both professional and amateur, will be listing off numerous potential Lions squads until Gatland announces his in mid-April. Initially, England and Ireland were expected to dominate the squad due to their recent successes but, this week, Scotland coach Vern Cotter has suggested that his players could easily take 10 of the spots, due to the emergence of their young crop of talent inspired by the achievements of Glasgow Warriors. On top of this, Gatland’s allegiance to Wales is unlikely to be forgotten, with the Welsh making up 15 of his 37 places in 2013. Wales also seem to hold the new frontrunner to be captain: Alun Wyn Jones, the inspiring second row who led the Lions in the third Test four years ago and who has taken over the national captaincy for the Six Nations.
All of this makes this year’s selection one of the most exciting in years, due to the competition among all four nations, and so the Six Nations provides one last chance for players to prove themselves on the international stage against their rivals before the final decision is made. Therefore, any selection made now is open to change depending on form and fitness over the coming months, with many prime contenders, such as Billy Vunipola, currently injured.
In keeping with tradition, however, I have selected a squad based on past performances and those whom I think would have the best chance of completing the formidable challenge of beating the All Blacks in their own back yard. So here is my selection for the Lions Squad to travel to New Zealand this summer:
This position is a prime example of the range of choices from all four countries that Gatland has to choose from. There is a key decision in getting the balance between experience, in the form of two-time tourists Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe, and youthful exuberance, through talents such as Anthony Watson and Simon Zebo. The formers’ abilities to cover full-back as well as wing will surely count in their favour, while Liam Williams must be pushing hard for similar reasons having established himself as one of Wales’ greatest attacking threats. This is without mention of the favourite to wear the No.15 shirt, Stuart Hogg, whose counter-attacking abilities are unrivalled and he has the ability to produce moments of magic, while the incumbent Leigh Halfpenny’s star has dropped due to injury and the reliability of Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking. So, with the dearth of full-backs, Mike Brown is likely to miss out as well, leaving one space for a specialist winger, likely to be fought out between George North, Bowe and Jack Nowell, but due to his potential brilliance which was shown during the last tour, North just edges this for me.
Selection: Anthony Watson, Rob Kearney, Stuart Hogg, Simon Zebo, Liam Williams, George North.
With Jamie Roberts, a mainstay of the last two tours, seemingly out of contention having dropped to the bench for Wales over the Autumn, his position as a hard-carrying centre seems set to be taken by Robbie Henshaw. The outside centre berth will be harder to fill, but at the moment, Jonathan Joseph seems to be in pole position due to his ability to beat the man and score tries. Hot on his heels are the young guns of Eliot Daly, who is challenging for the England No. 13 shirt and may be an attractive selection due to his versatility, and Huw Jones, who is being tipped by many to be a bolter after his sensational performances against Australia and Argentina in the Autumn where he sparked life into Scotland’s backline. Another contender is the experienced Jonathan Davies who was so successful on the last tour and can cover both centre positions, while Duncan Taylor, Alex Dunbar and Garry Ringrose cannot be far behind. But, on balance, Davies’ experience wins out and Jones grabs the final spot ahead of the equally mercurial Daly and Ringrose.
Selection: Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph, Huw Jones, Jonathan Davies.
When fit, Jonathan Sexton still remains the first choice fly-half for the Lions due to his outstanding game-management. But, Gatland will not be as worried about the Irishman’s fitness as he was on the last tour due to the emergence of a number of viable alternatives behind him. Leading the charge is Owen Farrell, one of the most improved players over recent seasons who has driven Saracens and England to new heights, he will definitely tour and may well fill the inside centre position in the tests as he has done for England. This leaves one more position to fill and it seems to be a straight shoot-out between George Ford and Finn Russell, as the expansive game plan which Gatland seems to want to play counts against the solid Dan Biggar. So, while Russell can produce outstanding moments of skill, Ford just edges it due to his more calm persona and the vision with which he can unleash his backline.
Selection: Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell, George Ford.
This should be one of the easiest decisions for Gatland to make with Conor Murray, Ben Youngs and Rhys Webb all of exceptional standard and playing well for their countries. The man who may challenge them is Greig Laidlaw, whose ability to goal-kick as well as his leadership skills would be valuable on tour, but he does not have the required X-Factor to knock the other three out of their position. As it stands, Murray seems certain to start as he has quickly become one of the outstanding Northern Hemisphere players with his performances for Munster and Ireland.
Selection: Conor Murray, Ben Youngs, Rhys Webb.
The pack provides even more difficult decisions for Gatland as all four of the Home Nations are based on superb forward efforts. Mako Vunipola seemed certain to start at loose-head before injury but will now be pushed hard by Ireland’s Jack McGrath for that position. This leaves one more slot which is likely to be contested by Gethin Jenkins, who is hoping to return for a remarkable fourth tour, Cian Healy and Joe Marler. Marler may have pushed hard for the position but for injury denying him his England place for the start of the Six Nations, so I have given the position to Cian Healy for his all-round dynamism, although he may be challenged by the exuberant Ellis Genge if the young tyro stars in the Six Nations.
The tight-head position will also be fiercely contested, with Tadhg Furlong the favourite after his outstanding virtuoso performances in the Autumn, while Dan Cole has also produced a remarkable resurgence under Eddie Jones and seems certain to go on a second tour. This again leaves one spot and it would seem to be a choice between the solidity of WP Nel or the energy of Kyle Sinckler and although Sinckler would be an exciting prospect off the bench, as shown by his recent cameos for England, if required to start Nel would be the more reliable option.
Selection: Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy, Dan Cole, Tadhg Furlong, WP Nel.
This position, until recently, seemed to be a competition not only for a tour spot, but also potentially for the captaincy. It may still turn out that way, it would be hard to deny Dylan Hartley or Rory Best the role if they led their country to a Grand Slam. Both would make my touring party; Hartley, despite his disciplinary discretions, would add much-needed snarl to the squad as well as leadership, while Best has developed into a solid all-round hooker after his horror tour of Australia in 2013. My final spot would go to Jamie George, perhaps the most complete hooker in England, who would not only be an able deputy but would push both men hard for a starting spot. Sean Cronin may have challenged before injury ruled him out of the Six Nations, while Ken Owens and Scott Baldwin could also make the plane with decent showings in the Six Nations.
Selection: Dylan Hartley, Rory Best, Jamie George.
This will be the hardest position for Gatland to choose; England have at least four second-rows of Test match quality, Alun Wyn Jones is usually the first name on any team sheet, the Gray brothers form a formidable pairing and that’s without even mentioning the Irish man-mountain, Devin Toner. One man certain to tour is Maro Itoje, who has been a revelation since making his international debut a year ago. I place him on the plane alongside my tour captain, Alun Wyn Jones, who is by no means a certainty to start the tests due to competition and the alternative leaders in the squad but commands respect due to his gargantuan efforts on the pitch. George Kruis is also very likely to tour due his recent rise and his excellence in the line out and defence, as well as his close relationship with the forwards coach, Steve Borthwick. This leaves only two places to be contested by the Gray brothers, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson. Jonny Gray claims one as he has established himself as a huge presence in the Scottish second-row while also leading Glasgow with aplomb, showing abilities which could be vital in bringing this squad together. This counts against his brother and Devin Toner, who both have similar playing styles and so miss out due to the wealth of other options. The final decision between Launchbury, Lawes and Henderson is difficult, especially with Henderson’s ability to play 6, but with Itoje already in the squad and a plethora of options in the back-row as well, this skill becomes less essential. I have given the final slot to Launchbury on the back of his tireless performances in the Autumn, which he has taken back to Wasps and grown into a player of outstanding ability while his proficiency over the ball gives him a point of difference.
Selection: Alun Wyn Jones (c), Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Jonny Gray.
One of the toughest decisions Gatland will have to make is to drop Sam Warburton, the man he has mentored at Wales and who led the team so successfully in Australia. But, Warburton is no longer first choice for Wales, let alone the Lions, and with so many options available there is no place for him in the squad. The man most likely to replace him at open side is his compatriot, Justin Tipuric, who would enable the team to play a free-flowing style equal to the All Blacks with his ability to make turnovers but also with his skill with ball in hand which is equal to that of a Test class centre. Along with Tipuric, Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau are certain to tour if they shrug off their current injury concerns as they have the ability to take the game to the All Blacks and place them on the back foot with their running game. The same is true of Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander, who have been outstanding for Ireland and their respective provinces this season and would offer viable alternatives as strong ball-carriers to put the Lions over the gain-line. This would also apply to Sean O’Brien, who on his day can be a one man wrecking ball, but would be pushed hard for selection by Ross Moriarty, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw, who have both been outstanding for their countries over the last year. Robshaw would have been very likely to tour before he was dealt the cruel blow of injury which has ruled him out of the Six Nations, but if he recovers in time he would still make my squad due to his all-round excellence and his never-say-die attitude. If he does not, Haskell or Moriarty would take his place alongside O’Brien, who just edges the position due to his experience of playing at 7. The possible bolter among this group would be Thomas Young, who has been in inspired form for Wasps over the last few months, but it would be a brave man to select him at the moment when his international pedigree is unproven, especially if he were leaving Warburton at home.
Selection: Justin Tipuric, Jamie Heaslip, Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien.
So, there is my 37-man squad to face the All Blacks in the summer; it combines a mix of youth and experience and is set up to play a fast-paced style based around a forward pack made of strong carriers which could place the All Blacks on the back foot. It is made up of 14 Englishmen, 12 Irish, 7 Welsh and 4 Scots, who I believe would have the ability to complete the formidable task of beating New Zealand at home, a feat which has been achieved only once in over a century of trying.
But before, that excitement begins and these players join up for the tour of a lifetime, they will batter each other with tooth and nail in what promises to be one of the most exciting Six Nations in recent memory. So, find a pub and sit down to enjoy this wonderful festival of rugby. Nail your nation’s colours to your mast, paint them on your face and buckle in for what is going to be a succession of mouth-watering ferocity. Roll on Saturday, and savour the spectacle.
Image courtesy of Alessio Bragadini