Head coach Warren Gatland has some massive calls to make before he announces his touring squad on April 19th. Gatland and forwards coach Steve Borthwick must pick a pack that can match up to the brutal physicality and technical excellence of the world-champion All Black forwards.
Despite questions surrounding his scrummaging, especially at the top level, in the loose Mako Vunipola is in a league of his own. He possesses the skillset of a centre and should start the first test at loosehead. Jack McGrath is an excellent option off the bench while Scarlets prop Rob Evans has stepped out of Gethin Jenkins’ shadow for Wales and should tour.
‘Vunipola is in a league of his own’
A battering ram in the loose and technically superb at scrum time Tadhg Furlong has the tighthead shirt all but wrapped up. Dan Cole is an experienced and able deputy; rejuvenated under Eddie Jones he played a part in every one of England’s seventeen game unbeaten streak. Gatland won’t gamble on WP Nel whose lack of international rugby over the past six months could pave the way for England rookie Kyle Sinckler to make the plane.
At Hooker most of the focus lies on Jamie George’s dynamism in the loose but Ken Owens has burst into form just at the right time and he should start the first test. Gatland can count on Owens to sure up the set piece. His faultlessness at the lineout provided the platform for Wales’s victory over Ireland in the Six Nations. Ireland skipper Rory Best vastly outperformed Dylan Hartley when their sides met at the Aviva. Best commanded the field while the maverick England captain’s performance was as poor as his infamous disciplinary record. Not so long ago touted as a potential Lions captain, Hartley’s poor form and indiscipline will probably see him miss the tour altogether.
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Gatland will be sure to draw on Alun Wyn-Jones’ wealth of experience in the second row. In Wyn-Jones he has a capable leader, the man who captained a rampant Lions team in the third test down-under four years ago. Wyn-Jones’ experience will be vital in what looks to be a youthful forward pack. England has been blessed with a plethora of outstanding best locks in recent years. Maro Itoje might have packed down with six on his back in the Six Nations but the young Saracen is foremost a world-class lock and should be a test starter. Despite recent injury George Kruis should make the plane. Lions forwards coach Steve Borthwick rates Kruis’ decision making highly, trusting his former teammate to control England’s potent lineout when fit. Kruis’ absence in the Six Nations allowed Joe Launchbury to shine. Launchbury was imperious and should keep compatriot Courtney Lawes out of the squad. Tackling machine Jonny Gray should fill the final second-row spot. Gatland will surely understand the value of Gray’s impeccable defensive play.
Few candidates look poised to be certain starters but CJ Stander looks a sure bet to start in Auckland on June 24th. The South African-born wrecking ball shrugs off defenders with ease, dominating the gain line. His ferocious ball carrying could be the key to getting the go-forward ball needed to damage the All Black defence. Injury may have left Chris Robshaw with only four games to stake his claim as a tourist but the former England captain has been in fine form since his switch back to the blindside. A notable omission four years ago, England’s backrow looked fragile during the Six Nations without the Harlequin. The versatile Peter O’Mahony can play across the back row and is more than useful as a lineout option.
Warren Gatland faces a selection headache most coaches can only dream of. In Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric the Lions coaching staff have two world-class openside flankers. Despite relinquishing the Wales captaincy, Warburton had been expected to edge out his compatriot, starting at seven and captaining the tour, as he did in the first two tests against Australia in 2013. Now facing six weeks laid out with a knee strain Gatland could start with Tipuric whose pace and brilliant support play make him a complete flanker.
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Despite returning to fine form with Bath in recent weeks, Taulupe Faletau failed to regain his place in the Wales team after injury and he will not displace Billy Vunipola or Jamie Heaslip’s positions in the squad. The All Black’s should fear Vunipola’s physicality. The monstrous ball carrier should join his brother as a starter in the first test. Heaslip has toured twice with the Lions before and would be a fine choice to captain the midweek side. Sean O’Brien is both experienced and powerful in the loose and should round off Gatland’s formidable backrow options.
All Black’s coach Steve Hansen will understand the arsenal of weapons Gatland possesses in his forward pack. The Lions go into the tour with an immense strength in depth. This squad depth will be key as injuries inevitably arise over the tours ten games.