This year’s Six Nations was a mixed bag of fortune for its contestants. England, who were dominant throughout the tournament, succumbed to the drive of Ireland last weekend, while Scotland have enjoyed success over the last few weeks. Italy had yet another disappointing tournament, whereas Rob Howley’s Welsh squad will be wondering why they didn’t perform in 2017.
For some, the Six Nations was an opportunity to see who would make the cut for the British and Irish Lions squad, and even who would be included in the starting line-up for the tour to New Zealand. It is a difficult XV to pick, and Warren Gatland will find it tough to choose a team that can topple the New Zealanders, who are arguably the best sporting team on the planet. Nonetheless, fans, players and coaches are excited: Lions forwards coach Graham Rowntree, for example, said this year’s squad would be “the best squad for the last 30 years.”
With the Six Nations over, here’s a likely Lions XV:
15 – Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
The Scottish fullback has been a match winner for his country this tournament, thoroughly deserving the player of the tournament award. With agility and pace, the Scot will be useful in challenging the strong New Zealand defence. Gatland may side with Leigh Halfpenny – if he is selected – on occasion during the series, and while his defensive and kicking game is stronger than Hogg’s, the Scot’s attacking prowess will surely see the Toulon man left out of the squad.
14 – George North (Wales)
While there are many contenders for this position, it is difficult not to start with North in the backline. He has regained form in this year’s championship, and has immense international experience. 110kg North will go up against fellow heavyweight Julian Savea in a battle which may decide who scores the most tries in a few test matches.
13 – Jonathan Joseph (England)
Another athlete hard to ignore in the middle of the pitch, Joseph was an impressive figure in England’s championship win and can forge a strong relationship with Farrell in New Zealand. He may have been absent in the defeat to Ireland, but the 25-year-old’s performances against the likes of Scotland in the championship show how lethal he can be on the park.
12 – Owen Farrell (England)
Almost a certainty in the starting line-up for club and country, Owen Farrell will be a key player in this year’s tour. Good pace, defensive skills, a kicking game – what more do you want from a centre? He can also perform his duties as fly-half if needs be, showing how crucial Farrell may be in the summer of 2017.
11 – Elliot Daly (England)
Perhaps one of the highlights of the 2017 tournament, Daly is an agile and dangerous winger. His pace was clear in the dying moments of the Welsh game, and may be why he is chosen over other similar players such as Liam Williams for the starting line-up.
10 – Jonny Sexton (Ireland)
All you have to do is read the back pages of any newspaper and look for what journalists are saying about Sexton chances in this year’s squad. Almost every rugby pundit favours Sexton at stand-off, and they are right to do so. Despite being targeted by English forwards in the emotional victory earlier this month, Sexton was relatively unscathed. However, the biggest issue for Gatland is whether he decides to play Sexton in the warm-up games of the tour, as he may be a target for some teams.
9 – Conor Murray (Ireland)
While it is likely that Rhys Webb and Ben Youngs will also be included in the Lions squad, and perhaps play more minutes than Murray before the test matches, Gatland would be wise to favour an-all Irish partnership at half-back. Arguably the greatest scrum-half in world rugby, Murray will likely play a key role in his second Lions tour after his selection for the 2013 squad.
1 – Mako Vunipola (England)
Despite being placed behind teammate Joe Marler at times during the Six Nations, the pace and skill set of Vunipola is badly needed against the New Zealand pack. Strength at the breakdown and ability in open play will be a huge asset to the side, but some pundits suggest he would be brought on as an impact sub.
2 – Dylan Hartley (Captain, England)
Jamie George and Ken Owens may be on the plane to New Zealand, but Gatland should opt with the experience and aggression of Hartley to face the New Zealanders. While the England captain’s form has been up and down recently, he is Eddie Jones’ main man for a reason. Alun Wyn Jones may rival him for tour captain, but if the Welshman does not start, Hartley may be the man to captain the team against the ferocious New Zealanders.
3 – Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
Another favourite of the pundits, the 24-year-old is almost guaranteed a starting position for the Lions. Dominant against every front three he played against in the Six Nations, and thoroughly deserves the honour of being given a seat on the plane and starting in the test matches.
4 – Joe Launchbury (England)
Launchbury is a workhorse. He does not stop, ever. He is needed against a New Zealand side which has props that can finish off tries. His pace, stamina and strength will be vital to contain the All Blacks.
5 – Maro Itoje (England)
Perhaps a controversial decision to select Itoje in front of the omnipresent and experienced Jones, but his all-round qualities may make the difference in the summer. He could probably kick for goal if we needed him too. Alongside Launchbury, the lock’s in the side may be a young and exciting pair ready to challenge the might of the All Black pack.
6 – CJ Stander (Ireland)
Is there even doubt that the Irishman will start? Described by The Telegraph as a “wrecking ball”, and that’s exactly what he is; he can break tackles, stay on his feet, and get over the gameline. He can play No. 8 too, so is a versatile player that will add value to the squad.
7 – Sam Warburton (Wales)
Since the Welsh captaincy was taken from him, he has recovered his old form. Moreover, he has Gatland’s respect and support after overseeing him captain Wales and the Lions previously. He is an option at six or seven, but he needs to start.
8 – Billy Vunipola (England)
While his impact in this year’s tournament was restricted due to an injury, it will be hard for Gatland not to start with one of the most destructive forwards in world rugby. Vunipola’s potential match-up against Kieran Read is would also be a spectacle in itself.
The Lions will begin their tour in early June, and have a 10-game schedule which will see them play at grounds in Whangarei, Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Rotorua, Hamilton and Wellington. The Lions will be hoping for their first victory against New Zealand since the 1993 tour in Wellington, and to better their overall record against New Zealand – which shows six victories, three draws and 29 defeats.