The scrum coach, Neal Hatley, believes all six of England’s front rowers who will attempt to secure consecutive Six Nations grand slams on Saturday are in contention for a place on the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer.
Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole will make their fifth consecutive starts of the Championship so far and can make themselves indispensable to Warren Gatland by getting the better of their Irish counterparts.
While the hooker Ken Owens has impressed for Wales and Gatland will continue to monitor the fitness of the Scotland tighthead WP Nel, the front-row battle will go a considerable way to determining Gatland’s pecking order with Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong among the contenders as well.
According to Hatley, the 2013 Lion Mako Vunipola has also staked his claim from the bench after his return to fitness, along with Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler – both of whom are yet to start for England. “All the guys have put their hands up, Mako, Joe, Jamie, Dylan,” Hatley said. “There isn’t a single player we’ve used in the front row who hasn’t put his hand up and pushed a really strong claim for selection.
“They’re a very good six, particularly at loosehead with the two players we have there. We have one of the best tightheads in the world in Dan Cole and one of the best upcoming tightheads in Kyle Sinckler. From a prop point of view we’ve got three really experienced, top quality players and one kid who is going to get there very quickly. We’ve got six very good front row forwards.”
Of the nine front rowers in Gatland’s initial touring party four years ago, four were provided by England with Cole and Vunipola joined by Tom Youngs and the wildcard selection Matt Stevens, who offered cover on either side of the scrum. Hartley was named in the squad but replaced by Best following his red card in the Premiership final.
His disciplinary problems have been well documented but as the England captain, Hartley is yet to taste defeat and, despite missing the first of England’s 18-match winning streak, has been ever-present under Eddie Jones. On Saturday he wins his 84th cap, placing him joint fifth and level with Martin Johnson on England’s all-time appearance list as Jones’s side seek a record-breaking 19th straight victory. “Dylan may have come in for some stick earlier in the tournament but every week he leads the team unbelievably well,” Hatley said.
“He works ridiculously hard with his prep. We think he’s been playing well throughout the tournament. Dylan may speak to the guys a little bit later but the work’s been done. He’s become the joint-fifth most capped player and all of that’s been acknowledged. The players look after it from here on in.”