It is rare in sport that fans get to see their fantasy teams become a reality. Football legends team up for charity matches when they are all way past their sell-by-date, whereas the annual All-Star or Pro Bowl games in the various US sports are not taken seriously by the players and are seen more as a fun day out. The closest any sport gets to seeing true fantasy competition is the pilgrimage by the British & Irish Lions to the Southern Hemisphere every four years.
This summer sees them travel to the Land of the Long White Cloud to take on Steve Hansen’s all-conquering All Blacks. The Lions travel with a chip on their shoulder, looking to avenge the 3-0 series whitewash of 2005 which was marred by an injury to captain and talisman Brian O’Driscoll in the opening moments of the First Test. Head Coach Warren Gatland will reveal his 37-39 man squad tomorrow at lunchtime on the eve of this much-anticipated announcement, I take a stab at what I think the make-up of the squad will be.
The first thing to be addressed is how big a squad Gatland will bring. As he is returning as coach following the success of the tour to Australia in 2013, I am expecting him to stick to form and go with 37 players as he did then. The next issue to address will be how will this selection be split between backs and forwards. Judging by his last squad and the additional options he has at his disposal, I think Gatland will pick 21 forwards and 16 backs.
Straight off the bat, Ireland and Leinster’s Jack McGrath has been consistently superb for the last two seasons and is surely guaranteed a space on the plane. Every facet of his game has improved and he has always been a solid scrummager. The first returning tourist will be England’s Mako Vunipola. He featured in all three tests Down Under and the battle between himself and McGrath for the number 1 jersey will be very interesting to watch. Vunipola is better around the park but his scrummaging can be suspect at times and that has to be a prop’s bread and butter. With my green-tinted spectacles firmly on I’ll go for Cian Healy to round out this trio, as he has unfinished business with the Lions having injured himself 4 years ago.
Another couple of easy picks here to start off with. Tadhg Furlong has come from being a promising prospect to a vital cog in Ireland and Leinster’s wheel in the space of less than a season and is almost nailed on for a starting place in the First Test, fitness permitting. England’s Dan Coles will ably back him up but I don’t think he is good enough to challenge Furlong for the jersey. A lot of people are speaking about Harlequin’s Kyle Sinckler as a bolter. For me, prop should be the last position you take a bolter in and I would go with someone with a bit more experience so I’ll give the nod to the Welshman Tomas Francis who enjoyed a very solid 6 Nations .
Despite some wobbly throwing at line-out time putting a black mark on his 6 Nations, Ireland captain Rory Best will be on the plane come June. A strong leadership team off the park is vital and Best will no doubt contribute to this. I think Dylan Hartley will miss out, as his rival at national level Jamie George is a very talented player and doesn’t come with the baggage and combustability that Hartley does. Ken Owens had an industrious 6 Nations for the Welsh and sneaks the final spot for me.
All good things come in pairs and we now have our first Scots of the group in the form of brothers Richie and Jonny Gray. Richie featured in one Test in Australia and is now a stalwart of the Scottish side while brother Jonny has been equally influential in seeing Scottish rugby rise from the ashes. They will be joined by Lions stalwart Alun-Wyn Jones who will be making his third trip as a Lion. Personally, Jones would be my captain as he did a superb job taking over from Sam Warburton in 2013 but I don’t see Gatland giving it to him. Donnacha Ryan is enjoying an Indian summer to his career and I think he is deserving of a place following a great 6 Nations. While he is being tipped to be left at home, I think Gatland would be mad to leave behind Joe Launchbury but the smart money says he will take George Kruis. Given the rate of attrition in top level rugby these days, I have no doubt Launchbury will be called upon at some stage.
The back row is always one of the most hotly contested areas. By default, I think Sam Warburton will be the first name penciled in here as he has become the overwhelming favourite to be captain. Gatland is certainly a fan of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy so seeing him select Warburton would be no surprise. Maro Itoje is another certainty and a player who will feel entitled to a Test jersey. Munster’s very own Superman CJ Stander will certainly have something to say about that and the tussle for the 6 jersey could be a fascinating one. Going with Gatland’s love of familiarity I think he’ll also plump for Sean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric to round out his flanker options. As with Furlong at 3, I think Billy Vunipola is as close to a shoo-in for a Test spot as you can get. The last spot is a straight battle between the experience and resurgent form of Jamie Heaslip and a favourite of Gatland’s, Taulupe Faletau. Faletau will benefit from having delivered for Gatland in the past despite not starting for Wales in the 6 Nations. Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony can consider themselves very unlucky to miss out.
Conor Murray is undeniably the best 9 available to Gatland at this moment so he will be travelling. He’ll be joined by Rhys Webb who has come back strongly from a heartbreaking injury just before the World Cup in 2015 to feature again heavily for the Principality. Scotland’s skipper Greig Laidlaw’s game does not offer enough once you remove his unerring goal-kicking so unfortunately he stays at home. Ben Youngs is a livewire and ups the tempo of any game he arrives into.
Unfortunately in some respects, the Lions are blessed with options in the outhalf department which means some quality players have to miss out. I’m a huge fan of Finn Russell but I don’t think he has either the authority or the goal-kicking prowess of either Johnny Sexton or Dan Biggar. George Ford is also a lovely player to watch but he did not overly impress in the 6 Nations despite playing behind a dominant pack and his club form has been uninspiring.
Again, an area with a plethora of quality and a lack of space due to the versatility of the modern day back. Owen Farrell can also cover 10 and is the best kicker off the tee in the world at the moment and as Leigh Halfpenny and Neil Jenkins have shown in the past, that can be invaluable. He is being touted to miss out but I think Jonathon Joseph has the X-Factor that the Lions may need this summer and has to travel. Robbie Henshaw continues to impress at 12 for Ireland despite naturally being a 13 and could be granted the opportunity to spread his wings somewhat in the warm-up games. Scott Williams rounds out the group. The tour comes just a season or two early for the likes of Garry Ringrose and Huw Jones, while the fact that Ben Te’o is being mentioned over Joseph is absurd, in my opinion.
George North provided the two most iconic moments of the last tour with his wonderful solo try in the opening Test and his use of Izzy Folau as a backpack in the same game and despite the concussion worries, he will travel. Anthony Watson missed the majority of the 6 Nations but I think has shown enough class over the past 2 seasons to warrant selection. Liam Williams continues to go from strength to strength and can cover both wings and full-back and is being back by many people to start the first game against New Zealand. Continuing on the theme of versatility, Elliot Daly of Wasps had a breakout 6 Nations and can play wing and centre while also possessing a siege gun of a boot which could come in useful. I think Scotland’s Tommy Seymour is an excellent player and offers an abrasiveness that some of his counterparts don’t have.
Stuart Hogg deservedly won Player of the Tournament in the 6 Nations and will be hoping to carry that electric form into the summer. Leigh Halfpenny‘s form has been lacklustre of late but he can kick goals and Gatland trusts him, which is a recurring theme here.
And there you have it.
Here is the breakdown by country:
- England – 11
- Ireland – 10
- Wales – 12
- Scotland – 4