As the hysteria of the 2017 British and Irish Lions squad selection begins to die down, the next stage begins – who will be in that touring Lions starting XV?
Lions starting XV – Gatland Has the Firepower
The 41 man squad has been chosen; with Greig Laidlaw replacing Ben Youngs due to personal reasons. The focus now turns to likely combinations and the men who will challenge the All Blacks in the three test series, beginning June 24.
Whilst the below selections may not be particularly likely due to Head Coach Warren Gatland’s preference for size and power, otherwise known as ‘Warrenball’, so with that much firepower, who to choose?
Now, if it were by some miracle (or nightmare, depending on how you look at it) that Last Word on Rugby writer James Kimber was put in charge of team selection, this is what he would go for.
Front Row Forwards
Ireland’s scrum success off their own ball was 100% during the 2017 6 Nations, which makes their front row very difficult to argue with. Jack McGrath and Tadagh Furlong have been nothing short of a revelation in the front row, an area Ireland have previously struggled for in terms of strength in depth. Mako Vunipola is a very special front row player – he’s one of very few Northern hemisphere props who is incredibly comfortable with the ball in hand. Nevertheless I see him as ‘a weapon to be pulled from the bench’ when the games need changing.
I am a huge fan of Rory Best’s work in the loose, but his throwing stats do worry me – he was the only hooker from the home nations to have lineout stats below 90%, which means I’d pick the impressive Jamie George to start. He’s the closest the Lions have to Dane Coles and his all-round game is one of the best around.
Options, options, so many options. The fact that Joe Launchbury didn’t even make the squad shows how much competition there is for places in these twos positions. I know Gatland is a big fan of George Kruis, and I think he will play a big part if he proves his match fitness in the run-up to the tour, but I would say that Maro Itoje is one of the few players who’s a shoe-in for a starting place. More comfortable in the locks, I expect him to be one of the stars of the tour.
Whilst the front five I’ve picked so far is very exciting, it does lack one thing – experience. Who better to bring that to the table than Alun Wyn Jones. Some will not think he’s been at his best for the best part of two years now, but his cool head and ability to lead the lineout gets him into my starting team.
I really like the balance of the back row I’ve picked here. CJ Stander and Billy Vunipola are gain line monsters, and if the Lions starting XV are to stand any chance of scoring tries, they will need the New Zealanders to be on the back foot.
Sam Warburton adds plenty. He is a jackal and a quality lineout option, and it will be intriguing to see who comes out on top in the turnover battle over the three Tests.
Half Back and First-Five
If fit, Connor Murray will be the starting number nine, without a shadow of a doubt. One of the best controllers of a game, with a superb kicking game to boot, he has established himself as one of the top scrum halves in the world.
Critically his understanding with Jonny Sexton will also be key, as their partnership has been at the top level for so many years now and will be crucial to any chance of Lions success. Additionally, to add gas, guile and impetus of Rhys Webb will be a very useful weapon from the bench.
Whilst Gatland has stated that he sees Owen Farrell as a 10, I would pick him where he has been playing for England; at number 12. This will split the attention of the Kiwi defense, with multiple receivers and options. Indeed the heavy-duty carrying nature of the back row takes away some of the need for a bash-merchant to run first or second phase ball.
For continuity on this tour, and with so little preparation time, Farrell’s understanding with Jonathon Joseph (which came to such wonderful fruition against Scotland this year) see’s that combination retained. Along with the lightning quick feet and hugely underrated defensive game of the Bath man, it means that those two would be my Lions starting XV center pairing.
Outside Back Three
Again I’ve gone for balance here – a heavy duty ball carrier in George North, the electric running game from deep of Stuart Hogg, and the all-round game of Elliot Daly. In fact, the Wasps back reminds me of the style of a Southern hemisphere player – his technique in all aspects of his game is so impressive, and Daly has the pace and left boot to worry any opposition.
Hogg’s ability under the high ball will no doubt be tested, particularly with the kicking ability of Beauden Barrett, but the pure excitement every time he gets the ball in hand makes him a shoe-in. Expect to see him crossing the whitewash on a good number of occasions in New Zealand, and he maybe the tour MVP according to Senior Editor Scott Hornell.
While in theory only, the Lions starting XV by James Kimber would test the All Blacks in the opening test on June 24. It will soon be up to Warren Gatland who he feels are the best 23 players to tackle the toughest assignment in modern day rugby union.
Last Word on Rugby cannot wait!