This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a potential Lions XV… which should lead to plenty of debate.
As your faithful correspondent sits down to his PC, it dawns upon him that there are now only 16 short weeks until the first British and Irish Lions Test in New Zealand – and only 12 until the first picks of 2017 take to the field in Whangarei.
We have somewhat overlooked this across the weeks, stuck in the grip of an enthralling Six Nations. It’s a shame, because as a heated debate between myself (Welsh), an Englishman and an Irishman on Saturday night proved, there is much to talk about.
That a Scot was absent from those present might have been by design in years past, or at least as irrelevant as the Scots have been low in numbers in the last couple of selections. But no longer. Indeed, at times it seemed as if we might end up with more Scots in the 22 than any other nation, such is the resurgence the men from the north have shown under Vern Cotter.
So in a spirit of wanting to spark healthy debate – and perhaps swell the revenues of struggling local pubs around the country – here is Loose Pass’ latest take on a likely test XV.
15 Stuart Hogg
This started the debate. Do you go for attacking flair and suspect defence or vice versa? But our overall conclusion was that to beat New Zealand you’ll need to score points – as Ireland worked out, probably about 28 of them – and so we’ll turn to the man who has been lighting up all and sundry from full-back throughout the Six Nations. If the game turns defensive, there’s the excellent Leigh Halfpenny for the high balls and extra goal-kicking, but Hogg adds a good seven points per game to any team.
14 Tommy Seymour
In a tournament not exactly brimming over with outstanding wing play, Seymour has been eye-turning in his ability to finish and counter with Hogg. Jack Nowell, Liam Williams and Elliot Daly are both just behind in the pecking order, although Daly is likely to – unfortunately for some – be taken along as a utility player covering centre and full-back as well.
13 Jonathan Davies
Give it two more weeks and we could be talking about Ben Te’o for this jersey. The England convert is certainly the go-to on form, but Davies has the long-term pedigree. Forget the kick against England, he is the outside centre with enough solidity all round and experience to keep the defensive seam at 13 in shape. His ability to offload is not being taken advantage of by Wales at the moment, but someone like Hogg could be deadly with Davies’ service. Again, Elliot Daly is a candidate too.
12 Owen Farrell
Questions will always remain about temperament, but it’s been a while since the last brain fart and Farrell’s obsessive attention to detail is ensuring he remains an exceptional 12 – probably a better 12 now than a 10. There are few others really knocking on this door, to be honest, although Farrell v Henshaw in a fortnight could change that.
11 George North
Again, impossible to ignore the pedigree although North has looked a little burnt out at times this season. Simon Zebo is a candidate here too, but neither Jonny May nor Tim Visser seem able yet to find the consistency required for a late surge. Given a good attacking platform, North has rarely failed to deliver, but we’d like to see more work coming off his wing – an aspect as much down to coaching decisions as to North’s attitude, we hasten to add.
10 Johnny Sexton
Simply nobody else even close. George Ford is not yet responding to occasional physical targetting, Dan Biggar could close out a game but not win it. Finn Russell is a threat with ball in hand but could be vulnerable to the same kind of abuse from opposing marauders that Ford is. If Sexton gets injured – chances are about 50-50 – Ford would be the back-up both on terms of versatility and familiarity with Farrell. But if they’re all fit, Sexton is clear number one.
9 Conor Murray
Possibly the most complete scrum-half in the world right now. His service is a good couple of seconds faster than anyone else’s and his ability to change the direction of play at the right moments is an extra fillip in a country where pace and variety are parampunt. Rhys Webb and Ben Youngs are in a scrap for the number 21 jersey.
8 Billy Vunipola
No he’s not played for a while, but whatever. Evidently he’ll be back shortly and assuming he stays injury-free leading up to the tour, some adept conditioning should ensure he’s in peak condition, meaning the Lions would have a genuine ball-skilled carrying threat just where they need it. Taulupe Faletau is probably the back-up, although if he fails to regain his pre-injury form, Jamie Heaslip has a shot as well.
7 Justin Tipuric
A flanker who offers intelligence, ball-stealing, pace in attack, and who is on some of his best form. He needs to be: Sean O’Brien is a whisker behind but is not yet hitting his previous heights.
6 CJ Stander
Right now, this is the player everyone in Europe is talking about each time Ireland plays. A ball-carrying threat who just will not go down, an all-action tackler who could ably fill a number seven jersey, Stander is a shoo-in on current form. Should this form dip, Maro Itoje, Sam Warburton and John Barclay are all waiting in the wings. James Haskell’s brain farts against Italy may have ended his chances; you need to be a thinker to win in New Zealand.
5 Alun Wyn Jones (c)
This pick was the most hotly-debated of the lot. Is Jones actually the best number five? What about George Kruis when he returns, or even Maro Itoje? Good picks both, but this is a team slightly short of real leadership now Greig Laidlaw’s injury has ruled him out. None of the other captains are in line to be picks, with the possible exception of Heaslip. So to lead our Test team we’ll go for the Test centurion who simply does not seem to get injured irrespective of whatever comes his way and leads by perpetual teeth-gritted, plough-through-the-pain example.
4 Joe Launchbury
The engine-room. This was a unanimous pick – I can’t remember the last time I watched Launchbury play without at least considering him for Man of the Match honours. Just a magnificent forward player.
3 Dan Cole
A position seriously short on depth, Cole returned to form against Italy and only really has the inexperienced Tadgh Furlong for competition now WP Nel is out. But make no mistake, front row is a weakness because of the lack of depth on this tour.
2 Jamie George
It’s hard to justify this selection over Rory Best – if we’re honest, this one is more of a gut feeling. George never fails to make an impact though, and again, we’re thinking points and ability to make things count in open play. As someone did point out to me, maybe it’s also borne of frustration because we don’t see him play as often as we ought to…
1 Mako Vunipola
Not as outstanding as his brother in his respective position, but Vunipola still has the credentials. Just ahead of Joe Marler on account of ball skills and it is worth monitoring the promising Jack McGrath’s form, especially against England and Cole.
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Tadgh Furlong, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 George Ford, 23 Elliot Daly
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Danny Stephens