LIONS: Red Rugby Lions Squad 2017

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This coming Wednesday (19th April) the 2017 British and Irish Lions Squad, as ultimately chosen by the man above, will finally be unveiled. After months of speculation, pub debate, and the frantic crossing out of names on the back of beer mats, we’ll finally know which men will be traveling to New Zealand for the toughest tour of them all. I’m sure you’ve all been drafting your own squads but here, for your delectation, is Red Rugby’s verdict on who should make the cut…and why.

For the past two tours the initial squad has comprised of 37 players. We expect that to be the case again. In terms of the split, we’ve gone for 21 forwards and 16 backs, as it was four years ago (although we wouldn’t be surprised if Head Coach Warren Gatland opts for a 20/17…which would be apt)! In terms of how we came to decide on these 37, well, we suspect the Lions will be looking for a squad that’s quick, mobile and athletic to match the All Blacks who excel in each of those areas. Teams that have managed to beat the Kiwis in recent years have done so by achieving two things: maintaining a high pace to the game and keeping more than their share of possession. We expect the Lions to be aiming for this in the game-plan. Whether they can match the New Zealand skill-set is another question. That’s not to say this squad doesn’t have its fair share of skillful players but, where there has been some doubt or debate, we’ve gone with those with a solid defensive game. Primarily though we’ve just gone with the most in-form players and/or those with world-class talent (as I suspect you have all done too).

Back Three

Elliot Daly (ENG), Leigh Halfpenny (WAL), Stuart Hogg (SCO), George North (WAL), Christian Wade (ENG), Liam Williams (WAL), Simon Zebo (IRE).

We’ve opted for ‘Back Threes’ rather than Wings and Fullbacks because, as you’ll see from the players we’ve chosen, there’s a lot of crossover between the two positions, with the likes of Halfpenny, Hogg, Williams and Zebo able to cover both. Elliot Daly deserves his place after a strong season for club and country, while we’ll be hoping for more superhuman Lions heroics from George North (having found his form just at the right time). The main surprise though (and our ‘squad bolter’) is Christian Wade of Wasps. His was the final name on our squadsheet after much deliberation (read dithering) on who should become our final backline player. He may be out of favour with England selectors but he’s been one of the best wingers of the northern hemisphere this last season: 17 tries, 1,326 metres made, 86 defenders beaten, 38 clean breaks and a solid 82% tackle success rate: a far from shabby set of stats for a ‘small’ player that compares favourably against the likes of current internationals Mike Brown, Keith Earls and Tommy Seymour. Unlucky to miss out are players like the Bath pair of Anthony Watson and Semesa Rokoduguni, but the ‘Wasps’ factor should not be underestimated (Gatland and assistant coach Rob Howley have strong links to the club). Wade was also called up (late in the day) for the 2013 tour so his Lions experience will make the pick easier to swallow for armchair pundits.

Centres

Jonathan Davies (WAL), Owen Farrell (ENG), Robbie Henshaw (IRE), Garry Ringrose (IRE)

The centres have proved to be tricky positions to pick for this year as no-one from the home nations has stood out above anyone else. This is to say except for Owen Farrell. The Saracens man regards himself as a fly half (and rightly so) but such has been his and fellow No 10 Jonny Sexton’s form in recent weeks, it would seem daft not having both of them on the field come Test time. As such, expect Farrell to be selected to continue that No 12 role that he successfully fulfills for England. With Faz regarded as a 12 in our squad, slots remain open for one additional inside centre and two outsides. Robbie Henshaw gets the nod over Scott Williams thanks to his form for Ireland and Leinster, while Jonathan Davies and Garry Ringrose sneak in ahead of Jonathan Joseph. Huw Jones of Scotland was in contention for a long time but is sadly injured and not able to tour. FYI, in our squad, Ringrose is the youngest player and carries that bloody stuffed lion toy around. He was born in 1995. Geesh.

Fly halves

Dan Biggar (WAL), Jonathan Sexton (IRE)

With Farrell battling it out one position in, the path is clear for Sexton to be chief No 10. The question then is who takes the other spot? We’ve only picked two fly halves (as actually happened four years back) because of the cover found elsewhere in the backline from, amongst others, the aforementioned Farrell. As a side note, this squad is full of place-kickers: Daly, Halfpenny, Hogg, Faz, Sexton yada yada yada. Our second official fly half is Biggar ahead of George Ford and Finn Russell as, in our opinion, he’s got the best combination of kicking game and defensive prowess. We wouldn’t be surprised if the spot goes to one of the other two though.

Scrum halves

Grieg Laidlaw (SCO), Conor Murray (IRE), Rhys Webb (WAL)

Murray and Webb were always shoo-ins and the battle between them to take the 9 jersey for the first test will be immense. You’d suspect that Murray is currently in pole position because of his performance against the All Blacks in Chicago last year, but Webb isn’t far behind at all. Our squad has room for three scrum halves though so we’re looking for someone who will be, we suspect, stuck in the midweek team. For this reason, we’ve gone with Scotland’s Laidlaw over England’s Youngs or Care. Why? Laidlaw is his country’s captain and will be an invaluable leader and warrior in that midweek side (that face some fierce fixtures on tour) and great cover for the other two should he be needed. We also think he’s got the better temperament for this very particular role. We worry Youngs/Care could be 2017’s Dawson/Healey: 2001 tour anyone?

Loosehead props

Joe Marler (ENG), Jack McGrath (IRE), Mako Vunipola (ENG)

Fairly straightforward picks here as Marler and McGrath were Six Nations starters for their respective countries (and the two best scrums of the home unions). Mako Vunipola is an outstanding player with some outrageously good handling skills for a prop (as seen in his Saracens shifts most recently) and could be crucial for the Lions going into the Test series. Rob Evans can consider himself somewhat unlucky (he’s another great passer of the ball) but, in all honesty, this is one position which lacks competition for places.

Hookers

Rory Best (IRE), Jamie George (ENG), Ken Owens (WAL)

So the big news is, according to us, the England captain will not be picked for the second tour running (Chris Robshaw having missed out in 2013). But will anyone really be that surprised? The press will make something of it but will England fans see it as a slight? A lot of them (rightly) consider Jamie George to be the better player. Dylan Hartley is picked for England as much for his character than anything else (a leader that defines Eddie Jones’ outlook following the softly-softly approach of his predecessor). This Lions squad will not be lacking in the character department though. The starting hooker for the first Test on June 24 will probably be up against Dane Coles: a phenomenal player. There’s no room for anything but the best our home nations have to offer. In Best, George and Owens, that’s what the Lions will have.

Tighthead props

Dan Cole (ENG), Tadhg Furlong (IRE), Kyle Sinckler (ENG)

We would be absolutely flabbergasted if Cole and Furlong aren’t in the squad as they were among the best performing props of the Six Nations. The question then is who should join them? Scotland’s Zander Ferguson? Munster’s John Ryan? We’ve gone for another option in the (not insignificant) shape of Harlequins man Kyle Sinckler. He produced some barnstorming runs off the bench for England in the Six Nations and is exactly the kind of ‘pacy prop’ option Gatland will be looking for in his squad. Will he make the Test team? Probably not, but he’s a usefully different type of player compared to the ‘crouch-bind-set’ gruffs that dominate selection up front.

Locks

Jonny Gray (SCO), Maro Itoje (ENG), Alun Wyn Jones (WAL), Joe Launchbury (ENG), Courtney Lawes (ENG)

The locks and back row positions are the most fiercely contested of the lot this time around…which is good when you consider the Men in Red will be facing the likes of Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read et al. So who to pick from the wealth of fours and fives the home nations have to offer? Our locks are dominated by Englishmen. Launchbury and Lawes were outstanding in the Six Nations and deserve to tour but, to our mind, neither is the best lock in their land. That title has to go to Maro Itoje. He was one of the first names on our squadsheet (as I’m sure he would be on most). We didn’t see the best of him this international winter following his move to flanker but he continues to impress for Saracens at lock, and that’s where we primarily see him playing on tour. He’s quick, athletic, powerful, competitive…he’ll be a right nuisance against the All Blacks (a team he’s yet to face). Two spots then remain open and, arguably, four or five people who could fill those. The players unlucky to miss out are from Ireland: the likes of Donnacha Ryan, Iain Henderson and Devin Toner. Joe Schmidt doesn’t seem to know which of these three are the starting two for Ireland and, with such fine margins at play, that’s counted against them. Instead come in Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones and Scotland’s Jonny Gray. Jones will be somewhat fortunate to make the squad following an under-par Six Nations by his high standards, but his leadership qualities and talismanic persona should see him through. Jonny Gray is the most underestimated lock in Europe. His stats for the season are incredible: 79 lineouts won, 276 carries of the ball, 316 tackles made with just the 9 missed (a 97% tackle success rate). He deserves his spot on the plane. This does of course mean that George Kruis (who was long touted as a Lion) doesn’t tour, but his injury has seen him slip behind other options and we don’t see him being called up on reputation alone.

Back Row

Taulupe Faletau (WAL), Sean O’Brien (IRE), Peter O’Mahony (IRE), CJ Stander (IRE), Justin Tipuric (WAL), Sam Warburton (WAL), Billy Vunipola (ENG)

There are so many quality players who don’t make the cut in our back row selection, that they’d form a pretty decent mini squad of their own: Jamie Heaslip, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw, Ross Moriarty, Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Nathan Hughes etc. So why have we gone for these 7? Well, you’re looking for a combination that can cover 6, 7 and 8 adequately while also providing different options for different games/different teams. In the shape of CJ Stander and Sam Warburton (the two best back row players of the Six Nations) you’ve got that mixture of quality and versatility, with both excelling at blindside recently but both equally adept at openside (and in Stander’s case, No 8 too). You’re looking for some ‘jackals’ to slow the All Blacks up at the ruck and to steal a couple of turnovers: Warburton and O’Brien are the best operators of this art form. You’re also looking for some bulldozing No 8s. Here is one instance where reputation has come before form in our squad. Ross Moriarty and Nathan Hughes are unlucky given some bruising runs in the Six Nations but, in Faletau and Vunipola, the Lions have two of the best 8s in the world. Heaslip is overlooked due to injury. You’ve then got a couple of spaces left for back row players who bring something a little different. Justin Tipuric is a special type of flanker: brilliant in both defence and attack. He has only missed four tackles this season, and prior to the Six Nations he hadn’t missed one.  He’s also as quick as most backs and, as such, scores some brilliant tries. He could be one to watch this tour. Our final spot goes to Peter O’Mahony, as much for his Man of the Match performance against England earlier this year than anything else. He’s also put some great shift in wearing the Munster jersey this year. He is one of the most fiercely competitive players you’ll find and the type of person who will ‘leave it all on the field’. He’s exactly the kind of character needed on a tour to New Zealand: a place where the Lions haven’t won a Test since 1993, and a series since 1971.

So there you have it. Our squad contains 12 Englishmen (but maybe not the ones you’d expect), 11 Irishmen, 11 Welshmen and 3 Scots. That seems a little off-balance given the final table in this year’s Six Nations but is probably reflective of how close the home nations are to each other at present. If the squad does end up having just 3 Scottish representatives, there will understandably be some cries of ‘foul play’ north of the border. But Scotland are a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Their best players can be found in that Glasgow-dominated back line but, individually, a lot of those players are not quite up there with some of the names mentioned above. Some recent injuries haven’t helped their final tally either.

With the squad collated, only one question remains: who should be tour captain? We shouldn’t make too much of the captaincy being handed around on tour as that’s a regular occurrence for the Lions. For example, six players ended up wearing the captain’s armband in Australia four years ago (can you name them)? As such, we shouldn’t get too hung up on whether they’re a certain Test starter or the like…although you would want them to be there. The main criteria should be who do you want being the face of the Lions in New Zealand? Which player is best placed to deal with the press, the scrutiny, the pressure of leading a squad of 30-something into one of the most hostile rugby environments? Ideally, which player will make the Kiwi players and supporters sit up and take notice? Having weighed it up, we reckon Sam Warburton gets the nod over Alun Wyn Jones. Either would be a good call.

So, let the debate begin! The final thing to say is, if you don’t agree with the above, or don’t agree with the proper squad when it’s announced on Wednesday…fear not! Injuries and suspensions mean that this is certainly not the end of the story. 46 players ended up being named as Lions in 2013, so your desired picks may well make an appearance yet.

I think you can rule out Jonny Wilkinson this time though.

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