George North’s two tries in three matches against Australia helped the British & Irish Lions to a 2–1 Tour win four years agoYoutube/Lyesalot Rugby

Having just about had time to catch our breath after the Six Nations, all eyes turn to the summer and to the Lions’ tour of New Zealand. With all four home nations in good form, selection is going to be tougher than ever for head coach Warren Gatland.

A gruelling schedule sees the Lions set to play seven matches in just five weeks, on top of the three-test series against the All Blacks. As such, Gatland is likely to take an extended squad, much like Sir Clive Woodward did on the Lions’ last trip to New Zealand back in 2005. It didn’t help them then, as they fell to a 3–0 series whitewash, but lessons have since been learned and, in 2013, the Lions won the series against Australia.

Each of the home nations have very distinctive styles at present, so one of Gatland’s biggest challenges will be to create a winning blend. He will be keen to harness the confidence of England’s players, who went unbeaten for so long, as well as the grit and spirit of the Irish, who know what it’s like to beat the All Blacks.

There is, of course, still plenty of time for players to play themselves in and out of contention before the squad announcement on 19th April and for injuries to intervene but, on the back of the Six Nations, here is who I think should make the squad.

Props

Mako Vunipola’s return from injury is timely for the Lions, with the Saracens’ prop tipped for a starting spotClément Bucco Lechat

For me, Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong have to be in the starting XV. Vunipola is one of the world’s best in open play, and his scrummaging has improved enormously, while Furlong has been a revelation: excellent in the scrum and a devastating carrier.

Next in line will probably be Ireland’s Jack McGrath, who has proved himself consistently to be one of Europe’s best. Dan Cole brings plenty of experience and is solid as a rock but, while I expect him to tour, I’d put England’s Kyle Sinckler on the bench – his dynamic ball-carrying could cause New Zealand some real problems at the back end of games. Joe Marler and WP Nel, if fit, should also travel.

Hooker

Dylan Hartley’s dwindling form makes the Lions captaincy a tough choice for Warren GatlandBlackcat

Despite being one of England’s ‘finishers’, Jamie George has been the outstanding hooker in European Rugby over the last year. Ken Owens had an outstanding Six Nations, and Rory Best has led Ireland valiantly, but, on form, I’d start with George. What he lacks in international experience, he makes up for with dynamism in the loose, excellent lineout throwing and solid scrummaging.

Dylan Hartley has also been an excellent captain for England, and may yet captain the Lions, but he isn’t playing as well as he was a few years back. That said, Owens, Best and Hartley should all tour and will fight it out for a spot on the bench. In a Lions squad there are usually a couple of bolters, so keep an eye out for Wasps’ Tommy Taylor, who might sneak his way in if there are injuries.

Locks

Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones should start if he can shake off an injury in time for the tourYoutube/Shuggy Thomas

The Lions are truly blessed in this department, with a handful of players who could all comfortably take the starting shirts. Maro Itoje is quickly developing into a world-class player, so is a nailed-on starter. Alun Wyn Jones is hugely experienced, always stands up in the big games and will be invaluable in terms of leadership. He has just been ruled out for five weeks with injury, though, meaning he won’t play again before the squad announcement. It’s a tough call between him and Joe Launchbury, but Jones just about gets the nod to start.

Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are both powerful workhorses who shone in the Six Nations, and so should both be on the plane, pushing for a starting place. The fact that both Lawes and Itoje can play in the back row could be a real asset. Iain Henderson had a great game against England but will need to back that up with strong form for his club to get picked, while George Kruis has been unlucky with injuries. Last year he was undoubtedly one of the best locks in the world, and I think that he will bounce back well. 

Back row

The Lions should be bolstered by the massive stature of Billy Vunipola at number 8Youtube/Andrew Forde

Again, another area of potential strength, and one where the balance will be critical. Billy Vunipola is absolutely nailed on at number 8. He was quiet in Dublin but on his day is the best in the world. At blindside flanker, I’d start with CJ Stander: he has been immense for Munster and for Ireland this season. Sam Warburton also had a great Six Nations at 6 for Wales, but may end up fighting teammate Justin Tipuric to start at open-side.

James Haskell and Sean O’Brien have also both proved themselves to be top back-rowers, whose ability to play in multiple positions will help them. Ross Moriarty was phenomenal at times for Wales at number 8 so he should surely go. Jamie Heaslip missed his final audition against England, but in his place Peter O’Mahony gave a timely reminder of what he offers, with a man-of-the-match display. I fear that Chris Robshaw’s chances, too, have been hurt by injury. Vunipola, Stander, Warburton, Tipuric, Haskell, O’Brien, Moriarty, and O’Mahony would be my choices.

Scrum-half

Harlequins’ Danny Care is likely to feature at scrum-halfCharlie

Conor Murray has been the outstanding scrum-half in Europe this season, and steered Ireland to victory over New Zealand in the autumn. His combination with Jonny Sexton could be key for the Lions. Rhys Webb had a great Six Nations and brings such spark to Wales’s play – I’d have him on the bench.

Ben Youngs has been very consistent for England and was their player of the autumn. His box-kicking is deadly accurate and he, like Murray, toured in 2013 – he’ll be there. With so many matches, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gatland pick four scrum-halves and Danny Care and Greig Laidlaw will be favourites for that slot. As an outside bet, how about the uncapped Dan Robson, who has been tearing things up at Wasps?

Fly-half

Ireland’s Jonny Sexton is a dead cert for the starting XV in New ZealandYoutube/RBS 6 Nations

This one’s a no-brainer: Sexton must start. Since returning from injury, he has shown his class for Ireland, controlling the team brilliantly and constantly challenging defences. Owen Farrell will be considered the second choice fly-half, but I would have him starting at centre.

There are probably two more slots to be filled here, which should go to George Ford and Dan Biggar – Ford because he is a mercurial talent when on the front foot, and Biggar because he drives the team well. Finn Russell has an outside chance but is perhaps not yet established enough at international level. Keep an eye out for Wales’s young Sam Davies and even Danny Cipriani.

Centres

Jonathan Joseph’s try-scoring form could make him a real asset to the Lions this yearYoutube/RBS 6 Nations

History shows that four centres are likely to tour, and I’d pick Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o, Jonathan Davies and Robbie Henshaw. Joseph showed what he is all about against Scotland and, in an open game, could be devastating. His defence is also fantastic.

Te’o has brought a new dimension to England’s midfield and could be a great option at 12 or 13. Davies has shown glimpses of his best this tournament, and won with the Lions in 2013, while Henshaw is developing into a brilliant inside centre. Gary Ringrose might make it, especially if there are injuries. Oh, and don’t worry, Elliot Daly is included below.

Wings

George North’s speed and strength make him ideal for the Lions wingYoutube/RBS 6 Nations

Again, another area of depth for the Lions. I’d take Anthony Watson, George North, Jack Nowell and Christian Wade. Watson is your typical flyer, with great footwork and solid under the high ball, while North has all of that, plus a huge amount of bulk. At his best, he could tear New Zealand apart, though his form isn’t quite what it was four years ago.

Nowell is a very good player with brilliant feet and a great work rate. Wade may be an outside bet but, as the Premiership’s top try-scorer, is an incredible talent who could really light things up. He was called into the Lions squad in 2013 and has improved since then, particularly in defence. Tommy Seymour of Scotland might make the plane, but I’d prefer Wade.

Fullback

Here winning the match for England in Cardiff, Elliot Daly is in brilliant formYoutube/RBS 6 Nations

Only one player is an out-and-out fullback here, and that’s Scotland’s Stuart Hogg. He is an outstanding attacking player and, while there are concerns about his defence, I think Gatland is likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. His siege-gun boot off the tee is also an asset worth having.

Another with an even bigger boot is Elliot Daly. He has been absolutely world-class for England and Wasps this season, making himself un-droppable. His kicking out of hand is exquisite, and his running game lethal. If Hogg gets the nod, though, I’d play him on the wing, or even at outside centre (arguably his best position) – he simply has to start.

Finally, Liam Williams will be on the plane. He’s another who has predominantly been playing wing this season – and may well start there for the Lions – but could pose a huge threat from full-back. Leigh Halfpenny – player of the series in Australia – has simply not hit the same heights since, and there are now others who are better at what he does; I think he’ll miss out.

Captain

Wales’s Sam Warburton would be a good pick for the captaincyYoutube/RBS 6 Nations

One of the trickiest decisions for Gatland is whom to make captain. He has stated publicly that his captain will not be guaranteed a place in the starting XV, which might suggest that he has someone like Alun Wyn Jones or Dylan Hartley in mind. Both are established leaders with great experience at test-level, and Jones captained the Lions in the third test in Australia. Owen Farrell is a strong candidate, though not an experienced test captain, while Sam Warburton led the Lions in 2013. Maro Itoje’s name has been thrown around but it’s probably a little too soon. I would go with Jones but, if he doesn’t start, Warburton could be the man.

The ideal Lions Test 23

1st XV: M. Vunipola, George, Furlong, Jones (c), Itoje, Stander, Warburton, B. Vunipola, Murray, Sexton, Daly, Farrell (vc), Joseph, Williams, Hogg

Finishers: Owens, McGrath, Sinckler, Launchbury, Haskell, Webb, Te’o, North

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