With the Six Nations now done and dusted, it is time to check who is making the plane to New Zealand for the Lions tour.
The last time we checked in with Warren Gatland’s excel chart we were two rounds into the Six Nations, with Scotland flying, England sneaking home, and Ireland and Wales stumbling through the first two rounds.
Plenty has happened since, with Huw Jones the first major casualty after his hamstring injury, and now we’re onto the home straight the levels of worry surrounding the health of key players is only going to rise.
So where do things stand after the Six Nations? If a superstar player is missing, that is likely down to a major injury or suspension rather than preference. And per Gatland’s words the other week, we have gone with 16 backs and 22 forwards (including six props).
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Pack that suitcase: Stuart Hogg has been the most creative runner in the 2017 Six Nations by some distance; supported by Liam Williams, the Lions are blessed with pace and flair at the back. Williams also has the versatility to be used out on the wing, as he does with Wales, and could well start there come the Test series.
On standby: For many reasons, not least his pinpoint kicking accuracy and versatility, Leigh Halfpenny will be there or thereabouts. Jared Payne’s performance against England has put him back on the radar.
Best make other plans: Mike Brown, Rob Kearney
Pack that suitcase: George North’s physicality and aerial threat are in a league of their own right now and he looked back to his imperious best in the win over Ireland with his two tries. Elliot Daly’s rounded skills supporting on the other flank other a nice balance to England’s back three. Anthony Watson’s speed and Tommy Seymour’s big presence may see them as travelling support to the main act.
On standby: Tim Visser has been industrious for Scotland whilst Jack Nowell’s work-rate and hunger stand him in good stead, but with both Liam Williams and Halfpenny able to cover wing, one wonders how many specialists Gatland will need to take.
Best make other plans: Keith Earls, Simon Zebo
Pack that suitcase: In one of the most hotly contested positions, Robbie Henshaw’s claims were cemented on Saturday in the win over England, with Owen Farrell’s consistency inking his place too, and doubling up as one of our three fly-half options. The bolter of the tour may be the supreme all-round ability of England’s Ben Te’o, with Jonathan Joseph’s pace and finishing impossible to ignore. Welsh evergreen Jonathan Davies for now completes the line-up.
On standby: Garry Ringrose has blossomed in recent weeks and may push hard down to the wire, whilst the Welsh faithful, Jamie Roberts needs no introduction to Lions fans or Gatland himself and will add the much-needed steel of Lions test match experience should he been needed. Scott Williams however is Wales’ current premier inside centre, and deserves consideration.
Best make other plans: Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Henry Slade
Pack that suitcase: Assuming Owen Farrell also covers ten, Johnny Sexton proved beyond doubt again he’s the best game manager around on Saturday. In terms of ‘finishers’, the jack-in-a-box cheek of Finn Russell offers something different to change games and he’ll thrive behind a more dominant pack.
On standby: Dan Biggar can count himself unlucky that there’s many options at ten but will remain on call, and George Ford has done nothing wrong but his lack of power will hinder his claims.
Best make other plans: Paddy Jackson, Duncan Weir, Sam Davies
Pack that suitcase: Conor Murray is the best in the world right now and is nailed on, supported by the pace of Rhys Webb and kicking of Ben Youngs to link the forwards and backs, which leaves the Lions with three very strong and experienced number nines for Gatland and his coaching staff to pick from. Webb has excelled in the tournament and could even start.
On standby: Greig Laidlaw’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Scottish skipper and Danny Care will let no-one down should he be called upon.
Best make other plans: Gareth Davies, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath, Ali Price
Pack that suitcase: With CJ Stander a natural number eight, Billy Vunipola will make up the rest of the back row with Taulupe Faletau, able also to cover six, offering versatility.
On standby: Should Gatland decide to take three number eights then Nathan Hughes would be in the mix, as would Ross Moriaty, who must be the unluckiest of all to miss out. Jamie Heaslip is able to offer two previous Lions tours to fall back on, but in all honesty Ireland’s back row against England looked better without him than with him.
Best make other plans: Josh Strauss
Pack that suitcase: Balance will be key against a tall and athletic Kiwi trio. Justin Tipuric is a true openside in the mould of Southern Hemisphere exponents and is nailed on, alongside CJ Stander (covering eight) and Sam Warburton. Peter O’Mahony’s Lazarus-like display in Dublin sees him travel, given that much like Warburton and Tipuric he offers an excellent lineout option. That leaves a slot for a fifth flanker and with a couple of veterans having failed to truly catch the eye, how about Hamish Watson, the young Scot who was magnificent turning the ball over against Ireland.
On standby: Sean O’Brien’s all-round skill-set sees him complete the back-up options but he does not look like the same players from four years ago, with James Haskell’s form failing to catch the eye in the last few rounds.
Best make other plans: John Barclay, John Hardie, Tom Wood, Josh van der Flier
Pack that suitcase: In a position with an embarrassment of riches, the experience of Alun Wyn Jones will be crucial alongside England’s young upstart, Maro Itoje, who despite spending the whole championship at six has leapt to the front of the queue given his freakish work-rate. Joe Launchbury is Mr Consistent and a contender for Six Nations player of the tournament having helped England to defend their title, and Jonny Gray will add height and athleticism. As for a fifth and final pick, how about Iain Henderson possibly adding some Irish grit to proceedings.
On standby: Only injury has omitted George Kruis from contention and in any other year, the in-form Courtney Lawes would be nailed on to tour. Donnacha Ryan meanwhile has a phenomenal engine, but could miss out in a congested area.
Best make other plans: Jake Ball, Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Devin Toner, Bradley Davies, Luke Charteris
Pack that suitcase: Rory Best’s composure and leadership in Dublin sees him move into pole position for the Test berth, whilst Jamie George has set the cat amongst the pigeons by seeing off his own international skipper with his pace and power. Ken Owens will travel despite huge question marks over his scrum work, adding his undoubted footballing skills to the front row.
On standby: Dylan Hartley will be devastated to miss out again, but since his well-publicised disciplinary issues, there’s a cutting edge missing from his game and leadership.
Best make other plans: Ross Ford, Scott Baldwin, Fraser Brown
Pack that suitcase: It’s clear that there’s a big disparity between the front rows of the leading sides, Ireland and England, versus the rest of the Home Unions right now. For that reason, we struggle to see past the Anglo-Irish claims of Jack McGrath, Tadgh Furlong, Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola, with the pace and handling of England’s bench prop Kyle Sinckler supporting them alongside the ever-colourful Joe Marler.
On standby: WP Nel can count himself unlucky that injury has ruined his chances, with Cian Healy another proven performer who showed flashes of his old self against England.
Best make other plans: Tomas Francis, Samson Lee, Zander Fagerson