Lions Watch 2017: Edition 2

Date published: February 2 2017

With the Champions Cup group stages over and on the eve of the Six Nations, now is the time to check who is making the plane to New Zealand for the Lions tour.

In a couple of weeks we’ll return to the laboratory to chart who has improved their chances and who has slipped down the pecking order, doing our best to help Warren Gatland settle on who should make his squad.

If a superstar player is missing, that is likely down to a major injury or suspension rather than preference. And matching the 2013 squad, we have gone with 16 backs and 21 forwards.

Your feedback matters in this process, so let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

FULL-BACKS

Pack that suitcase: No change in the frontrunner here with Glasgow Warriors’ star Stuart Hogg still leading the way and set for a big Six Nations tournament. Liam Williams impressed for the Scarlets in the Champions Cup keeping him in contention, but is Leigh Halfpenny in danger? As good a goalkicker as Halfpenny is, he needs a big Six Nations with the following players under the spotlight over the next few weeks…

On standby: …such as Mike Brown and Rob Kearney. Brown has quietly impressed for Harlequins and remains England’s number one full-back going into the Six Nations.

Best make other plans: Alex Goode, Tiernan O’Halloran

WINGS

Pack that suitcase: Plenty of change on the wings. Tommy Seymour narrowly missed out in our last edition but now has to make the plane, and maybe even start in New Zealand after his recent efforts for the Warriors. Simon Zebo as well still makes the cut, and even with his recent hamstring injury Anthony Watson has looked good on his return from the jaw injury that kept him out of the November Tests. What about the fourth slot? George North’s concussion issues dominated the headlines since our first Lions watch and he needs a big Six Nations, but the class is still there.

On standby: A slip down the pecking order for Jonny May due to Seymour’s form while Tommy Bowe desperately needs minutes on the field. Jack Nowell has sparkled for Exeter and looks best placed out of this trio to crack his way into the category above.

Best make other plans: Alex Cuthbert, Marland Yarde, Andrew Trimble

CENTRES

Pack that suitcase: A slight change of approach here. Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Henshaw stay put but out go Owen Farrell (we’ll explain) and Jonathan Davies. Promoted are the in-form Scott Williams, whose efforts for the Scarlets have really caught the eye to the point that Davies has been left on the bench. And we can’t ignore Alex Dunbar either, another of those Glasgow backs currently at the top of their game.

On standby: Garry Ringrose and Huw Jones look poised for a breakout Six Nations but the starting Test combination from 2013 in Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have a lot of work to do.

Best make other plans: Henry Slade, Jared Payne, Elliot Daly, Rory Scannell

FLY-HALVES

Pack that suitcase: The form of Williams and Dunbar means Owen Farrell goes as a fly-half – his day job with Saracens – but who else should be the other number ten? The answer for now, his lack of a match-winning drop goal aside against Munster, is Scotland’s Finn Russell, who is playing with a real swagger in recent weeks.

On standby: George Ford’s goalkicking is a problem here but he is the next in line just ahead of Paddy Jackson. Fitness continues to be an issue for Jonathan Sexton, and what about Dan Biggar too? So much to choose from here.

Best make other plans: Joey Carbery, Sam Davies, Duncan Weir, Danny Cipriani

SCRUM-HALVES

Pack that suitcase: No change here with Conor Murray the clear starter but Leicester’s disastrous form has certainly dented Ben Youngs’ claims, although he will start for England in the Six Nations. Greig Laidlaw still seems like the perfect midweek captain but his place may come under threat as the Six Nations progresses.

On standby: Gareth Davies is pushing Rhys Webb for Wales while Glasgow’s Henry Pyrgos also deserves to be considered.

Best make other plans: Ali Price, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath

NUMBER EIGHTS

Pack that suitcase: Injuries have kept Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau sidelined, with Vunipola missing the Six Nations, but bar an exceptional Six Nations from Jamie Heaslip any change here still seems unlikely.

On standby: Heaslip’s form was good recently for Leinster in Europe and he had a fantastic November for Ireland, while he also offers lots of experience. Nathan Hughes meanwhile will be under the spotlight replacing Vunipola throughout the upcoming Six Nations. Ross Moriarty also is on the radar.

Best make other plans: Josh Strauss, Ryan Wilson, Ben Morgan

FLANKERS

Pack that suitcase: Justin Tipuric and CJ Stander will certainly tour, but injuries elsewhere have led to this section being re-examined. Tipuric by the way is yet to miss a tackle for the Ospreys or Wales since the last Six Nations, a phenomenal record. Sam Warburton is no longer Wales captain and therefore unlikely to lead the Lions either, which means his selection will depend solely on performances. We’re expecting a response. That leaves two open slots. Chris Robshaw’s injury has come at the worst time while Sean O’Brien, much like Sexton, needs to stay consistently fit. For now we’re going with Josh van der Flier in that fifth spot.

On standby: Tom Wood is now vital for England in the Six Nations and could push his case, with James Haskell still on the comeback trail. Peter O’Mahony it has to be said is not far away either, while John Hardie returns to action this weekend. Robshaw’s Six Nations-ending injury feels like a hammerblow to his hopes.

Best make other plans: Thomas Young, Teimana Harrison, Hamish Watson

LOCKS

Pack that suitcase: Two names are leading the way for the Lions Test lock spots on current form in Jonny Gray and potential captain Alun Wyn JonesMaro Itoje is right up there alongside them and can show off his abilities as a blindside flanker this weekend against France. For the other two spaces at lock there are plenty of candidates. Devin Toner and George Kruis hang on for now, but it is a tight race.

On standby: Luke Charteris is a favourite of Gatland’s so should be considered, while Jake Ball has arguably been the form lock in Wales. Joe Launchbury’s power and good form for Wasps might sway the argument and Courtney Lawes too is back to his best. Meanwhile, Tim Swinson has been outstanding for Glasgow of late and is pushing hard for more starts for Scotland.

Best make other plans: Richie Gray, Donnacha Ryan, Iain Henderson

PROPS

Pack that suitcase: Mako Vunipola‘s injury is a setback but he would still be our starter narrowly over Jack McGrath, while Tadgh Furlong is in pole position at tighthead. Zander Fagerson is now the Scottish frontrunner after WP Nel’s neck injury, with Dan Cole also on the plane. That leaves a loosehead spot up for grabs… for now it belongs to Joe Marler.

On standby: Nel will be considered but the severity of his neck surgery is yet to be revealed. Cian Healy remains a good option while Rob Evans, benched for the Six Nations opener with Italy, and Samson Lee have work to do.

Best make other plans: Nicky Smith, Tomas Francis, Kyle Sinckler

HOOKERS

Pack that suitcase: Doubts continue to linger over the lineout work of Rory Best while Dylan Hartley pretty much defines the saying “not everyone’s cup of tea”. But, they remain the two frontrunners. Who then gets the nod as the third hooker? Ken Owens for now.

On standby: Jamie George and Ross Ford will be waiting by the phone but don’t rule out Niall Scannell either, the Munsterman who makes his Ireland debut this weekend.

Best make other plans: Sean Cronin, Fraser Brown, Scott Baldwin, Luke Cowan-Dickie

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