The choice for the Lions Tour is getting closer. It’s a theme to rugby writing that’s always present and always controversial, Here’s my take on who’s in contention, and who I would pick for a Lions team if it were to play this summer.
The difficulty is of course choosing a balanced team that can win in New Zealand, that also ensures all 4 Home Nations are represented. To that end, no team will have fewer than 2 players in the starting line-up or 3 in the 23.
The Back Three
15. Full Back
Contenders: Stuart Hogg, Mike Brown, Rob Kearney, Liam Williams, Alex Goode, Anthony Watson, Leigh Halfpenny, Nick Abendanon
- Mike Brown was one of the few England players who were excellent in the World Cup, but had a quiet 6 Nations, despite the Grand Slam.
- Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny, great players that they are, don’t really stand a chance due to recent injuries
- Alex Goode has shown what good player he is for Saracens, but there is some reason that Eddie Jones picks Mike Brown ahead of him, so I have to rule him out of the running.
- Liam Williams is a very good kick chaser, and a great open field runner, but I still don’t think he’s as good as some of the other contenders. Much like Alex Goode for England, if every Welsh player was fit he probably wouldn’t be first choice for Wales.
- Anthony Watson has proven capable at fullback, but I wouldn’t pick him as first choice. However he is a definite option to cover full-back and wing.
- Stuart Hogg is the stand out full back and the most exciting open field runner in the Northern Hemisphere. He had an impressive 6 Nations and played a big part in many of the moves that helped Scotland claim the scalps they did in the 2016 tournament.
- Nick Abendanon was one of the best players in Europe last year, but tales of his exploits seem to have waned during the 2015-2016 season. Without seeing him play in internationals it’s very hard to judge him against the competition, and as long as he plays in France he won’t play for England. Catch 22, but it means he can’t be picked for the Lions.
11, 14. Wings
Contenders: George North, Anthony Watson, Tommy Bowe, Tim Visser, Jack Nowell, Andrew Trimble, Liam Williams
- George North Has re-found his form and he gained in stature as the 6 Nations progressed. A dangerous runner with size and pace.
- Anthony Watson enhanced his reputation in the World Cup and Six Nations. Excellent under the high ball, a solid defender and a able to create things in broken play. Covers fullback as well.
- I’ve rated Tommy Bowe for a long time, and he gets a mention here despite his injury problems. However I can’t consider him seriously due to not having played a part in Ireland’s recent campaigns
- Tim Visser is showing the form of a true finisher for Harlequins at the moment. When he gets a look in he has as a good a chance of scoring as anyone. Seems fairly solid in defence as well, but he’s just short of making the starting team.
- Jack Nowell is another player that’s so close to the best that he could be in the team as easily as the others. Excellent defence and very capable in other areas
- Andrew Trimble had a solid 6 Nations – he saved a lot of points with solid defence. Does he have enough in other areas to be considered amongst the best?
- Liam Williams could be considered as a wing who covers full back, but Watson is ahead of him in both areas.
My picks for the Back Three
15: Stuart Hogg – the most dangerous player in the NH
14: George North – Has found his form and looks Awesome – covers Centre if necessary
11: Anthony Watson – already one of the best wingers in the NH and covers FB if necessary
13. Outside Centre
Contenders: Jonathan Davies, Jonathan Joseph, Jared Payne, Duncan Taylor
- Jonathan Davies has a fearsome reputation, but since returning from injury hasn’t really done anything to keep him top of the pile
- Jonathan Joseph has been phenomenol for England over the last 2 years with 7 tries in 10 caps. My worry in the last campaign was the size of the England midfield with JJ alongside Owen Farrel. However JJ was more than capable of defending his channel. His dangerous footwork often open up defences.l
- Duncan Taylor both a lot of class and skill in the 6 nations. Maybe in the more winning team he’d be in the mix.
- Jared Payne excelled at times for Ireland but doesn’t have the footwork of Joseph or the power of Davies.
- Stuart McCloskey – Could be a bolter but more an inside centre where ther’s too much competition.
12. Inside Centre
Contenders: Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Jamie Roberts
- Jamie Roberts is probably the top pick at 12 for 80% of Lions fans. He showed why during the World Cup and Six Nations and I see no reason to dispute it.He’s a fantastic player.
- Owen Farrel acquitted himself well at 12 for England and gets a mention here as, for me, he’s certain to feature on the bench to cover 10 and 12.
- Manu Tuilagi has come back form exile and injury to show his abilities. It’s hard to discount him as an option in the centres or on the bench to provide impact in the last 20 minutes.
My picks for the Centres
13: Jonathan Joseph – to have him running off the shoulder of Jamie Roberts could be devastating
12: Jamie Roberts – the bludgeon. He must be marked, and can give other players the space to do some real damage.
10. Fly Half
Contenders: Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell, Jonny Sexton
- Dan Biggar is the master of the kick-chase. He’s a very solid place-kicker, sound in defence and can break the line on occasion as well.
- Jonny Sexton is the master of the tactical kicking game, gaining ground to put teams under territorial pressure. There are concerns about the number of concussions he’s received, but until he’s told to stop playing that shouldn’t affect selection decisions. He will always put his body on the line in defence and
- Owen Farrrell’s game is developing and he’s proving he can be the lycnchpin in the successful teams of Saracens and England. Whether you like the tactics or not, they are the “winningest” teams in Europe.
- I haven’t mentioned George Ford as a contender and I suppose everyone will agree that he’s been to flaky for Bath and England to be considered.
9. Scrum Half
Contenders: Rhys Webb, Gareth Davies, Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Conor Murray, Greg Laidlaw
- Until his injury, Rhys Webb was playing brilliantly. Gareth Davies came in and has shown he’s just as good so it’s a tough choise, even within the Wales team as to who is the first choice.
- England are in a similar position to Wales with 2 outstanding Scrum Halves and no definite first choice. As a Grand Slam winning side you might expect the Scum Half to be a definite Lion, but without a definite 1st choice, maybe neither is the best choice for the Lions.
My Picks for Half Backs
10: Jonny Sexton – Biggar is so close it’s hard to call. But Sexton just gets the call on, I dunno, reputation I guess. Biggar’s strength in the kick chase is just topped by Sexton’s positional kicking.
9: Conor Murray – This is probably the toughest position to call with six outstanding candidates for one position. It’s so close that the only thing that swings this is the understanding between Murray and Sexton.
My Backs substitutes
Almost every team takes 3 backs substitutes. This seems sensible so I need to ensure I have people to cover every position.
In the 1st 15 we have cover for full-back (Anthony Watson) and outside centre (George North). So we need cover and scrum half, fly half / centre and the back 3.
Apologies of the subs bench seems a bit England-centric. There are good reasons for all three.
Danny Care – provides zip of the bench and his scything runs cause teams major problems.
Owen Farrell – one of the best kickers in the game, a solid defender and has shown he can cover inside centre. It’s tough to call Farrell over Biggar for the bench spot, but whomever I chose as first choice 10, Sexton or Biggar, Farrell would have made the bench for his versatility.
Manu Tuilagi – a potential game-changer who is getting back to his best. Tuiagi covers the wing spot as well. In case of injury to the fullback, he moves to wing with Watson covering FB