Despite the empty stadiums’ international rugby is back and with it the long road to British and Irish Lions selection.
God willing the British and Irish Lions will get the chance to tour South Africa. Unlikely but let’s enjoy the autumn whilst we can and the selection conundrums that Lions coach, Warren Gatland will face. The real business starts next weekend as a bizarre 2020 Six Nations is finally completed. Ireland and Scotland both won convincingly against disappointing Italian and Georgian outfits. Wales and France played out a cracking encounter in Paris. Perhaps two players including a bolter put themselves into Gatland’s eye line over the weekend.
Scotland v Georgia – Finn Russell shows his ‘magic’
Georgia did nothing to suggest that they will be a viable Six Nations challenger to perennial basement dwellers Italy. For Gatland, he would have been heartened by Fraser Brown’s leadership in a dominant Scottish set-piece. Scotland’s pack were impressive and Lions’ hopefuls Zander Fagerson and Jamie Ritchie did their chances no harm at all.
But it was an old favourite who love him or hate him who took the headlines. Finn Russell’s beaming smile told us all we needed to know about what it meant for him to be back in a Scottish jersey. Russell made an immediate impact in a previously stuttering Scottish backline. His vision and feel for space are unmatched in Europe at present and he must be in Gatland’s plans. Let’s leave the question on whether Russell can do this against the world’s best.
For the time being rugby fans should rejoice at seeing Russell strutting his magic on the international stage again.
Ireland v Italy – Andrew Porter/Jacob Stockdale
Like Georgia, Italy once again flattered to deceive as they fell to another heavy defeat in a Six Nations game. Ireland took some time to get their game going but by the end, they were dominant.
One of the reasons was their total control at the breakdown. The Irish turned over the Italians at will with Andrew Porter, Ireland’s tighthead leading the way. The Lions are well stocked with tightheads but, Porter is becoming more comfortable on the international stage and could push his way into contention.
We all know how talented Jacob Stockdale is. He was the best winger in Europe when Ireland swept all before them in 2018 although since then, he has struggled for consistency. Stockdale had a shocker against Toulouse in the European Champions Cup a few weeks back. Not for the first time, Cheslin Kolbe made a mockery of his opposite number, and Stockdale was twisted and turned to distraction.
Gladly for Irish fans, this weekend, in the unfamiliar full-back jumper, Stockdale was dangerous throughout against Italy. With Jordan Lamour injured, it will be fascinating to see how Stockdale goes against the French – a real option for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour squad.
France v Wales – Louis Rees-Zammit is some talent
Most of us love our bolters when it comes to the Lions and Louis Rees-Zammit could be one of them. He may be only 19 but he is some talent. Rees-Zammit did not have much of a chance to impress against France but a fine run down the flank in confined space in the closing moments, suggests that Wayne Pivac might start him soon.
Wales played their part in an exciting contest against the resurgent French in Paris. The scoreline perhaps flattered to deceive the French but there is no denying that France has their ‘va-va-voom’ back. The usual suspects like Alun Wyn-Jones, Jonathan Davies and Justin Tipuric will be better for the hit out when the Scots come visiting next weekend.
Four defeats in a row is worrying however for both Gatland and Welsh coach, Wayne Pivac. Ideally, Gatland will want to stack his Lions squad with players he knows well from his Welsh days but there are some concerns on certain favourites. George North, in particular, struggled to get into the game on Saturday and will need a big one against Scotland to restore his confidence at this level.
Wasps v Exeter – Henry Slade/Jack Willis
Warren Gatland would have taken note of Exeter’s stunning rise as kings of Europe and England. It will be interesting to see whether Eddie Jones is more generous to the Devonshire club when it comes to England selection.
The Simmonds boys and a few others are surely ready for a call-up and their progress will be tracked over the next few months. Henry Slade is now a seasoned England international and he took his try brilliantly in Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership final. Slade has so much more to come in the England jersey and if he can play with more consistency then he will be a huge asset to the British and Irish Lions.
Another bolter for the Lions management to consider is the considerable form of Wasps’ Jack Willis. He is surely going to be picked in Eddie Jones’ squad for the Autumn Nations Cup. No player in the Premiership has claimed more turnovers than Willis, but he is also a human wrecking ball who regularly finds the try-line.
British and Irish Lions squad will need quality options
The breakdown battle in South Africa will be a key part of who comes out as victors. The Springboks will have Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit who are mighty in this department – Willis could be a useful squad addition.
Next weekend the serious stuff begins as the Six Nations comes to an end. Ireland goes to Paris, England to Italy and Scotland to Wales. British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland will surely have a few more candidates to consider and maybe another bolter.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images