No sporting entity creates as much debate amongst its followers as the British and Irish Lions.
Style preferences, national allegiances and even club loyalty all sway people’s opinions on who should be selected. One thing beyond debate ahead of the side’s tour to New Zealand next year, however, is that the competition and level of quality in the second row far exceeds any other position in the Lions’ armoury.
Conventional wisdom suggests that a coach will take five locks on tour and as it stands, a couple of the home nations could offer up that many Test-calibre second rows on their own, let alone the mass of talent which pools together when all four nations combine their resources.
Before going any further, let’s establish the selection of players that head coach Warren Gatland will likely pick from.
England’s favoured duo of Maro Itoje and George Kruis are front and centre, whilst deputies Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury also have valid claims.
Heading north and the Gray brothers, Jonny and Richie, are in the mix, whilst in the west, both Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris will be at the forefront of Gatland’s thoughts.
Finally, across the Irish Sea, the duo of Iain Henderson and Devin Toner have both made compelling cases so far this season.
That takes the total to ten standout second rows, without even considering the quartet of Charlie Ewels, Ultan Dillane, Donnacha Ryan and Bradley Davies, who, in previous tours, may have been among the favourites to travel.
A logical starting point would be to identify the sure-fire certainties to make the squad and, at time of writing, they would seem to be Jones and Itoje.
Jones brings unmatched leadership and experience to the group, whilst Itoje’s impact on the international scene has been as effective and dominant as any forward in recent memory. Both players offer a lot at the set-piece and in the loose, particularly defensively, with the pair adept at the breakdown and fluent communicators.
Trying to work out who tours alongside the duo is a little harder, though.
Richie Gray potentially has credit in the bank, having been one of Gatland’s favoured men when the Lions toured Australia in 2013 but it’s his younger brother, Johnny, who has been winning the headlines so far this season.
The 22-year-old Glasgow Warrior has been in destructive form in the Champions Cup and PRO12, and just like Jones and Itoje, offers the ballast in the set-piece, whilst also delivering dynamic physical traits in the loose.
Another player capable of performing at the highest levels in the tight and loose, not to mention also revelling in fine form, is Kruis.
As a combination with Itoje, he has gone superbly at club and Test levels this past year and like his club and international teammate, he is a defensive general of the highest order, not only with his own play, but also as an organiser of the men around him.
Veterans Charteris and Toner bring enviable height to the lineout, as well as numerous other skills, with the latter proving a key cog in disrupting the All Blacks’ lineout in Chicago earlier this year, albeit with both Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock missing.
The contrast to these two is Launchbury, whose primary skills are away from the set-piece. His work rate and stamina levels are second to none in the group, whilst the lines he runs as a carrier are as good as plenty of backs out there. There’s no doubting his skill set and what he can do on the rugby pitch, but whether it is as suited to Test rugby or, more specifically, causing the All Blacks problems, is another debate.
That leaves two, Henderson and Lawes.
Starting with the Ulsterman, Henderson is a dynamic carrier, built in the same mould as Launchbury, but offers a little more ballast in the scrum, something which is even the more impressive given he has the mobility to move to the flank if necessary.
As for Lawes, he doesn’t have quite the height of Toner or Charteris, but his arm length makes him a prolific pilferer – or at least disruptor – of opposition lineout ball. Coupled with his line speed and scything tackles, Lawes at his best is a giant spanner to throw in the works of New Zealand’s attacking game plan.
With the All Blacks so adept off of the lineout and in general phase play, having players that can attack the Kiwi lineout and put pressure on or before they make the gain line will be key in the goal of trying to make the All Blacks play the game on the Lions’ terms, rather than vice versa.
These are big ticks in the columns of the Grays, Kruis, Henderson and Lawes.
That is not to write off Launchbury, Toner or Charteris, but with the goal of beating New Zealand in mind, the cases for the other five are more compelling, at least in the opinion of this writer.
Those five players do need whittling down, however.
Given the short time the entire squad will have to prepare for the Tests, nailing the balance of the team and forming effective combinations early will be paramount and should be enough to open up a spot for Kruis, who plays alongside Itoje every week and he may well be catching throws from fellow club and Test teammate, Jamie George.
Likewise, the prospects for Rory Best look good if he can maintain his current form and having a familiar jumper in the form of Henderson could help get the best out of him.
That takes the tally of locks to four, with the two Gray brothers and Lawes left to fight it out for one spot.
Form certainly gives the advantage to Jonny and Courtney and whilst no one is writing off Richie at this point in the season, he has a little more ground to make up than the other two.
So, how do you then separate these two?
Both have potential combination positives, with Dylan Hartley likely to tour and Fraser Brown impressing of late for Scotland and Glasgow, whilst they are both among the premiere defensive locks in the game.
What Gray gives you in work-rate on the defensive line, Lawes gives you in an ability to shut down attacking plays before they even reach it.
What Lawes gives you in his ability to spoil opposition lineout ball, Gray gives you in an efficient platform for starting and launching driving mauls.
To completely cop out, we’re going to put both in, giving us a total of six locks.
Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Iain Henderson, Jonny Gray and Courtney Lawes.
Six second rows may feel extravagant but with Itoje and Henderson – as well as Lawes at a pinch – able to also play on the flank, it’s a versatile group more than worth the real estate it will take up within the squad.
Each player offers something unique to the rest of the group and all of whom, on paper, have skills which can make them troublesome to the All Blacks.
Trying to find balance within the engine room and ensuring they gel with the front and back rows selected around them is not as easy as it sounds and taking an extra man in this department could be a prudent move on the Lions’ behalf.
There is plenty of time before selection has been the moniker of most pieces on the Lions to date but with the squad to be named in April, these decisions will already be starting to be discussed by Gatland and his coaching team.
Two rounds and knockout stages of the Champions Cup and the Six Nations remain as proving grounds for all the players talked about above and though the dreaded spectre of injury could yet shatter their dreams of touring, the pecking order is beginning to take shape.
Will Gatland agree with this selection of locks? Only time will tell.