This year's Six Nations Championship has provided an opportunity for established players to showcase their skills and for some phenomenal young talents to announce their emergence on the world stage. With the Lions 2021 tour of South Africa just around the corner, some have confirmed their place in the squad whilst others have played themselves out of contention.
As always, squad selection for the Lions tour means that difficult decisions will have to be made. Much will depend on the approach of Warren Gatland the Lions Manager and the style of play he believes will be needed to beat the ‘Boks’ in their backyard. As with every such tour, there will be arguments about who should go and who is going to miss out. We all have our ideas and we'll all try and second guess the Lions management team. Here's my selection for this year's Lions tour, once you've read I'd love to know what yours is, so feel free to comment below.
The Captain: For me, Alan-Wyn Jones has played himself into this position. A three-test playing tourist to SA in 2009, with a further 6 Lions caps and 148 caps for Wales, his performances in the championship have all but nailed him onto the starting sheet. His physical presence matches that of all previous Lions captains to South Africa going back to 1974 where the great Willie-John McBride led his ‘invincibles’ in a memorable series. Since then, all Lions captains to the country have come from the second row.
Scotland (4): Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell
Wales (7): Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams
England (5): Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs
Ireland (3): Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray
Keith Earls (Ire), Jacob Stockdale (Ire), Garry Ringrose (Ire), Huw Jones (Sco), Cameron Redpath (Sco), Alistair Price (Sco), Gareth Davies
My squad of backs has some notable absentees from the previous tour to New Zealand. Eliot Daly (Eng) for example is not there. Despite his all-around ability to play in the back-three, at center, and his capability to kick penalties from inside his own half! for me, his lack of form and eventual dropping from the starting fifteen for England in the Six Nations means he misses out.
Of the scrum-halves, you may feel that Ali Price after his Six Nations performances is unlucky not to be in my squad. I certainly agree he played well but given the competition for this position and the return to form of Conor Murray, I just don't believe he makes the cut.
Of those other outsiders listed, Jacob Stockdale stands a chance, and I feel Garry Ringrose could count himself as unfortunate if not selected. The outstanding play of George North at center in this year’s Championship provides Gatland with options but I would expect Ringrose will be a stand-by. Had Cameron Redpath not been injured in the first round of the Championship, for me he would have been on the plane, but now despite his talent, I think he misses out.
Scotland (3): Matt Fagerson, Hamish Watson, Rory Sutherland
Wales (6): Alun-Wyn Jones, Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi
England (7): Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Marler
Ireland (7): CJ Stander, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, Cain Healy
George Kruis (Eng), Sam Underhill (Eng), Caelen Doris (Ire), Jamie Ritchie (Sco), Jonny Gray (Sco), Billy Vunipola (Eng), Mako Vunipola (Eng),
Of the forwards, the most challenging selection is in the back row. Sam Underhill whose game in my view is ideally suited for the hard, fast grounds of the highveld – would count himself unfortunate to miss out, as would Sam Simmonds (Eng) whose performances for Exeter Chiefs would in any other year have won him a few caps in the Six Nations. He may well still get the nod from Gatland, though with competition across the other Home Nations being as stiff as it is, the step up from first-class to test status, without that exposure this year, may count against him. The strength-in-depth of the back-row players available for selection means for me that Jamie Ritchie will miss out. In my opinion, although injured in the autumn series, and unable to showcase his talents in the Championship I feel Celen Doris may still find his way onto the team. His versatility in the back row and the options he would give Gatland around the park make him for me stand-by option.
Given Andrew Porter’s ability to play on both sides of the scrum insofar as the front row is concerned, I feel Mako Vunipola may be unlucky this time. A skilled scrummager with two tours under his belt already, Vunipola would be a difficult man to leave out. However, Gatland has been known to make such calls before. If he makes the squad, it is likely to be at the expense of Cian Healy whose performance against England raised his stock considerably.
Joe Marler could be considered fortunate. A previous tourist to New Zealand, he is probably one of the best loose-heads around. However, making himself unavailable for the Six Nations, may count against him. However, if Gatland means business and wants to take the strongest
players to South Africa to face the bulk of the Springbok pack, Marler is likely to travel.
Finally, in amongst all the hype, Warren Gatland will want to pick a squad and a starting XV to beat the Springboks.
Given this, my take on the Test starting XV is as follows:
Hogg, Rees-Zammit, Davies, Henshaw, Watson, Sexton, Murray, Wyn Jones, Owens, Furlong, Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones (c), Beirne, Curry, Faletau.
Finishers: North, Biggar, Tomos Williams, Marler, George, Sinckler, Lawes, Tipuric
Whilst the above test XV and touring squad may differ from your personal selections, a mouth-watering prospect awaits us in the summer! It would be great to have your take, but this is mine to win in South Africa!