In less than a month, Warren Gatland will announce his British and Irish Lions squad that will tour New Zealand this summer with the task of securing a first series victory over the All Blacks in 46 years.
Gatland offered a hint of who will captain the Lions this summer, claiming that one of six men could skipper the party to the Southern Hemisphere with the aim of securing back-to-back series wins for the Lions following the 2-1 success over Australia four years ago.
The Welsh duo of Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton are currently favourite to lead the squad, with both looking assured a place in the squad, while Gatland cast doubt on Dylan Hartley’s place in the squad by talking up the chances of Jamie George, Rory Best and Ken Owens, despite leading England to consecutive Six Nations titles.
Here, we’ll break down the squad and select the players that could prevent the Lions’s wait for a win over the All Blacks from stretching beyond the half-century mark. In 2013, Gatland selected an initial 37-man squad with a number of reserves being called up as injury cover during the squad.
We’ll follow Gatland’s lead and choose the 37 players that should be on the plane at the end of May, along with an eight-man reserve list.
Props: Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath, Joe Marler, Tadhg Furlong, WP Nel, Dan Cole
Gatland will want to have three players for each side of the front-row. The loosehead starting spot is definitely up for grabs, with Jack McGrath’s performance in Dublin at the weekend moving him ahead of the English duo of Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler. Marler’s performances in the Six Nations has jettisoned him back into the reckoning, and given he is still holding off Vunipola for the England shirt, he could yet claim the Test jersey. However, if Vunipola can rediscover his form of 2016,the place is his. Should WP Nel recover full fitness, he will definitely make the squad and could even start the Test side if he gets a few games under a belt, with Tadhg Furlong the next in line. Dan Cole looks destined for a midweek spot.
Hookers: Jamie George, Rory Best, Ken Owens
This looks a settled department after Gatland plunged Hartley’s position into doubt. Jamie George has the form and fitness to make him one of the best hookers in the Northern Hemisphere, and it feels like the time is nearing when he replaces Hartley. Rory Best and Ken Owens probably did enough during the Six Nations to cement their place, while Fraser Brown looked to be forcing his way in before he cost his side dearly in Scotland’s defeat by England, and was subsequently dropped the following week.
Locks: Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson, Jonny Gray, Joe Launchbury
Five locks should be enough for Gatland, with Maro itoje and Iain Henderson both providing cover for the back-row too. Alun Wyn Jones is nailed on for the squad and, barring any disasters, the Test squad too. That could also land him the captaincy, but Wales’s fifth-place finish in the Six Nations will not be a highlight on his CV. Itoje is the favourite to start alongside him, and rightly so, while Jonny Gray should go for his work in the loose during the Six Nations. That leaves Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes fighting for the final place, and Launchbury edges it thanks to his incredible numbers in carrying and tackling during the Six Nations. George Kruis misses out due to his shortness on matches this year, but more on that later.
Flankers: CJ Stander, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien
The starting back-row looks to be a sorted one, with CJ Stander and Sam Warburton – at openside flanker – joining Billy Vunipola. Peter O’Mahony also makes he cut, not only because of his fantastic lineout display at the weekend, but because of the intensity he brings and his experience as club captain of Munster. Itoje and Henderson cover the blindside, which means two more opensides can make the flight, and Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien just edge out James Haskell due to their threat at the breakdown and in the choke tackle respectively.
No 8s: Billy Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau
The contest between the two cousins looks to be a settled one thanks to the England No 8’s incredible form since last year. Both Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau suffered injuries that deeply impacted their Six Nations campaigns, but while Vunipola forced his way back into the starting XV by the final weekend, Faletau has not been able to. Jamie Heaslip misses out, which may come as a shock, but the cover that Stander offers means more useful options can be made up elsewhere.
Scrum-halves: Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs
This also looks like a settled affair, although Ben Youngs may see his place under threat from compatriot Danny Care if Gatland wants an electric option to bring off the bench. Rhys Webb has that same X-factor though, and with him on the Test bench to support Conor Murray, Youngs would be a much better option for the midweek side.
Fly-halves: Jonathan Sexton, Dan Biggar
Again, fly-half is an area that Gatland can restrict due to the ability of Owen Farrell to play No 10 to a world class level. Jonathan Sexton looks nailed on for the starting spot, but the back-up role is wide open after the Six Nations, with Dan Biggar, George Ford and Finn Russell all fighting for the place. Each has something in their favour, with Ford able to combine with Farrell in the partnership that has flourished for England. Russell is the most exciting of the three and has the ability to make something out of nothing, but Biggar may just sneak it due to Gatland’s preference to play him for Wales, while he will make the fewest mistakes out of the three. His superior kicking from hand also helps him, with the fly-halves unlikely to be kicking at goal in the Tests due to Leigh Halfpenny’s and Owen Farrell’s inclusion.
Centres: Owen Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies, Huw Jones, Jonathan Joseph
With just two fly-halves in the squad, Gatland can take five centres in his squad, with Owen Farrell guaranteed a place. If he starts at inside centre, expect Jonathan Joseph to partner the Saracens back. However, Robbie Henshaw also has a very good case to start, and should be among the touring party, with the centre also beating the All Blacks last October. That leaves two places, for the outside centre role, and Jonathan Davies should receive his second Lions call-up to fill one of those. It then depends on what Gatland wants – cover at 12 or at 13. If it’s an inside centre, then expect Scott Williams to travel, while the outside centre cover if offered by Garry Ringrose and Huw Jones. The Irishman enjoyed a wonderful Six Nations campaign, but Jones gets the nod here due to his powerful ball carrying, his try-scoring threat and his experience at playing in New Zealand with the Stormers.
Wings: George North, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams, Elliot Daly
The wing is a place of great strength for Gatland, and it’s going to be tough to leave out certain players who have impressed over a prolonged period of time. George North is a must, with the powerful wing tormenting the Wallabies four years ago and showing that same danger against Ireland in the Six Nations. With North starting on one wing, the other is likely to go to the dangerous Anthony Watson, although his international teammate Elliot Daly is pushing him hard after a fantastic run of form for England. With one place left, Liam Williams goes as a wing, but will also provide cover at full-back and could actually find himself starting the first Test in the 15 shirt. It’s incredibly harsh on the Scottish and Irish wings though, who would also do a job.
Full-backs: Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg
This looks a fairly certain outcome too, with Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg offering very different options. Halfpenny is Mr Reliable, a player who will tackle anything that breaks the line, look to free-up his teammates in attack and provides a trustworthy option for kicking at goal from anything inside 60. Hogg, on the other hand, is the all-action choice that could open up the All Blacks in the blink of an eye. He is suspect under the high ball and also as the last line of defence, but has pace to burn and a try record among the best in the worlds.
Reserve list: Dylan Hartley, Cian Healy, Samson Lee, Courtney Lawes/George Kruis, Chris Robshaw, Greig Laidlaw, George Ford, Jack Nowell
Hartley should provide the cover for the Lions given he will add determination, experience and fight in equal cover. Healy is the next best loosehead across the four nations, and can be a wrecking ball carrier even if his scrummaging is not quite what it used to be. The tighthead role is likely to be fought out between Weslh pair Lee and Tom Francis, although Gatland could spring a surprise and include the exciting prospect that is Kyle Sinckler given the experience he available in Cole and Nel.
The second row is a difficult subject, as while Kruis isn’t going to be in the mix due to his lack of rugby, he could well be back to full fitness come the start of the tour and would offer a Test-level replacement. If not, Lawes is the man next in line. England’s Robshaw will cover the back-row, though James Haskell might have some say in the department along with Heaslip, while Scotland captain Laidlaw should hopefully be fit to take a place among the reserves. George Ford beat Finn Russell to cover the No 10 shirt, with Jack Nowell covering both centre and the back three with the versatile Exeter back beating Simon Zebo, Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser.