As with all good teams you start up front with the big lads, so following on from my previous article discussing the split of next year’s Lions party, I’m going to take a look at the forwards who I believe will go on the plane. Before starting my list, I would like to again state this is what I think we will see and not necessarily what I would like to see.
So to begin the front row:
When going down to New Zealand many Lions fans have stated the need for players with good ball skills. I agree and as such I believe for that reason the starting England prop Mako Vunipola has to be on the plane. His powerful ball carrying and soft hands when combined with his ever improving scrummaging will cause the All Blacks some problems.
Along a similar train of thought, the 2 Irish props Healy and McGrath both offer a threat around the park with ball in hand and an almost back like ability to distribute. They also demonstrate a work rate that is suited to the slightly more expansive game I believe we’ll see from the Lions next year.
As such I believe these should be the three loose head props to board the plane.
In: Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath and Cian Healy
Unlucky to miss out: Gethin Jenkins and Joe Marler
Without doubt this is one of the most controversial positions, largely due to a certain Mr Hartley, but also due to the fact all the current starting hookers are significantly different players.
I think Hartley has enough credit in the bank and will be on the plane. Granted recent issues may have now lost him a chance at captaincy but despite his lack of presence in open play (it will be made up for by others) his leadership and solid set piece are enough to see him make it in.
Rory Best is another dead cert to go on the plane and will absolutely be pushing for a starting berth. His experience and work rate in the open will prove invaluable.
This leaves one hooker spot and two players left worthy of the position, Jamie George (whose mobility, off loading and decision making offers something none of the others have) or the ever dependable Ross Ford, a player who never puts a foot wrong for Scotland. I think Jamie George will be taken purely for his point of difference away from the set piece, it could well be the difference in a tight game.
In: Dylan Hartley, Rory Best and Jamie George
Unlucky to miss out: Ross Ford, Ken Owens, Sean Cronin
Probably the weakest area of the home nations; getting this right is going to be key to the Lions set piece. Cole is in for his importance in a rapidly improving England scrum; although in my opinion like Hartley he doesn’t offer as much as he used to in the loose.
Having come from relative obscurity for the armchair fan, Tadgh Furlong has burst on to the scene recently. Simply put his ball carrying, as seen against New Zealand, is immense and his scrummaging strong and he can rightly be considered the favourite for the starting test post.
Tadgh Furlong goes Beast Mode vs All Blacks
Finally I believe that Gatland will make sure that Samson Lee is involved. Potentially having been the best scrummager in the Northern Hemisphere a few months ago and this may prove to fit Gatland’s game plan more than the all court game the fans are hoping for.
In: Tadgh Furlong, Dan Cole and Samson Lee
Unlucky to miss out: Zander Fagerson, Kyle Sinckler, W P Nel
This could be the strongest and most difficult position to pick in the whole squad as the home nations currently has a pool of second rows so deep that whittling down all of that quality to leave just 5 is an almost impossible job.
Any England fan will tell you, and most other Lions fans will begrudgingly agree, that Maro Itoje is likely the first name on the team sheet after an outstanding first year in international rugby. There is a strong chance he could be taken at the expense of one of the back rowers (to follow) in order to accommodate another talented lock. His impact on England has been incredible as has George Kruis’s. Both have been instrumental in maintaining a 90% lineout success rate and stealing 12 lineouts in the Six Nations.
Alun Wyn Jones is another stalwart and brings energy and leadership. Likely he’d be a good foil for a player like Itoje by taking on the work in the tight exchanges (his maul defence alone must see him on the plane) and while Jonny Gray may not be at the front of everyone’s mind when selecting their sides he is often the best forward on the pitch when playing for Scotland. His defence is second to none and he causes chaos in opposition lineouts.
Finally one of the most improved forwards in recent memory, Devon Toner whose game has developed to the point where he is no longer just a lineout forward but a real nuisance all around the pitch.
In: Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn-Jones, George Kruis, Johnny Gray and Devon Toner
Unlucky to miss out: Iain Henderson, Richie Gray, Luke Charteris, Courtney Lawes
As previously mentioned I believe Itoje may take up one of these positions but for now I’m going to work on the assumption he will travel as a lock. We’ll go with this as he has primarily been playing there for England.
So first up is the blindside and a certain CJ Stander, who since qualifying for Ireland has been undroppable. He’s a big ball carrier and an equally big defender, his breakdown work is also vastly underrated. In a squad made up of very few out and out ball carriers so far he will be a big addition.
A similar style player if slightly more athletic is Ross Moriarty who has managed to break up last tours winning Lions partnership of Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau – no mean feat. He didn’t quite shine at number 8 in the autumn but his performances at blindside will be enough to make the plane.
Moving across to the other flank, we’ve got a somewhat controversial call, I think Justin Tipuric has proved he is on another level to other flankers and exactly what will be needed against New Zealand, much like Jamie George that X Factor could prove invaluable in tight games and as such it’s flourishes of those skills, as demonstrated against Newcastle Falcons below, that leads me to think he’ll out Warburton who upon relinquishing the national captaincy has struggled to have an impact at either 6 or 7 for Wales.
Justin Tipuric Wonder Try vs Newcastle Falcons
My other 2 flankers can realistically cover either side of the scrum and they are Sean O’Brien and Chris Robshaw. If picking the X Factor type players a workhorse who will do all of the unseen hard work such as Robshaw will prove an extremely useful tool. Sean O’Brien may have lost some of the barnstorming powerful runs that made him a big name but he has added a lot of subtlety to his game which more than makes up the difference; his ability to distribute from 1st receiver is similar to Heaslip and his ability to get through the first contact is second to none. He, like Itoje, is also devastating at the ruck both when attacking over the ball and also when moving opposition players off the ball.
In: CJ Stander, Chris Robshaw, Ross Moriarty, Sean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric
Unlucky to miss out: James Haskell, Jack Clifford, Hamish Watson, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate
The injury to Billy Vunipola has, potentially, thrown a huge spanner into the works here for Gatland. It’s also made my life more difficult in predicting the composition of the squad. There is a decent chance the layoff will give him some much needed rest, and if he is fit and hitting form there is no doubt he will make the squad. His ball carrying, distribution and defence either starting or coming off the bench will be at the core of the Lions assault on the All Blacks
With Billy currently uncertain eyes turn to Nathan Hughes and the impact he could bring. The problem here is, while he’s been good, he hasn’t quite brought that dominant Wasps form to the international stage yet and I think this means he’s unlikely to make the plane.
Jamie Heaslip has hit the form which made him a star on the 2009 Lions and for me would be the likely other player to play at number 8. The problem is he faces strong competition from a Gatland favourite in Faletau who like Robshaw rarely gets recognised for the work he does. Once again 3 into 2 does not go so one of these great players will miss out. For me I think it will be Heaslip on the standby list, although that would not be my personal choice.
In: Billy Vunipola, Toby Faletau
Unlucky to miss out: John Barclay, Dave Denton, Jamie Heaslip, Nathan Hughes
This would therefore mean the forwards in my predicted squad would look as below, and although there were some tight calls to make I believe this will be very close to the squad chosen (barring injuries):
Hookers: Dylan Hartley, Jamie George, Rory Best
Looseheads: Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath, Cian Healey
Tightheads: Tadgh Furlong, Dan Cole, Samson Lee
Second rows: Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jonny Gray, Devon Toner
Back rows: Ross Moriarty, CJ Stander, Chris Robshaw, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien, Billy Vunipola, Toby Faletau