Right now, no single team in world rugby comes close to New Zealand (sorry England), so, to say Warren Gatland, his staff and the eventual Lions squad have a massive task on their hands would be a very big understatement.
Since Gatland’s 2013 Lions team won the tour of Australia, a lot has changed. In the last tour, the starting XV was heavily made up of a very strong Welsh contingent, and even though Gatland faced a lot of criticism over his selection, it worked, and worked very well.
Now that the 6 Nations is over, everyone’s attention has turned to the Lions. Two questions dominate the press; what sort of squad should Gatland take and who should captain the tour?
Arguably, there are a few people who have already booked their seats on the plane, but the 15 players who will start against New Zealand in the first test in Auckland are still very much up in the air. Yet, a starting XV must be chosen and so after much deliberation, this is who I believe should be starting that first test match on June 24th…
Full Back – Stuart Hogg
Hogg has had another fantastic season and yet again has been Scotland’s stand out player, due to his ability to cause any opposition defensive issues. Unfortunately he went off injured against the English, with many excited to see how he could expose the English defence, yet he still had a wonderful tournament. Injury permitting, Hogg deserves to not only be on the plane but also in the starting XV.
Wingers – Liam Williams and George North
This is a selection that a lot of people may not agree with but both George North and Liam Williams are arguably the best wingers we have to offer at the moment. North has not been in sparling form recently but after being heavily criticised, he showed exactly why he should be starting against New Zealand when Wales met Ireland in the 6 Nations.
Liam Williams was Wales’ best player in the 6 Nations and brings so much to any team he is in. He's is fearless and brilliant under the high ball and in my opinion is a shoo-in to start.
Centres – Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Henshaw
Can anyone argue with the selection of Jonathan Joseph? His pace, power and creativity in the centre will definitely trouble the All Blacks. A fantastic player and also a joy to watch.
Now, his centre partner could be any one of 4. Both Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose have stepped up massively since the formidable Brian O’Driscoll retired but for me the former just edges it.
Another possibility is, of course, Owen Farrell. He’s had a brilliant 6 Nations and could quite possibly be in the centre with his compatriot Joseph, but I personally would love to see Henshaw get the nod over the English centre.
Fly Half – Jonny Sexton
This is another position that has a few possible candidates. Dan Biggar is defensively sound, Finn Russell has been offensively creative for Scotland and both George Ford and Owen Farrell possess the ability to don the red of the Lions and pull the strings.
Yet, the way Jonny Sexton orchestrates Ireland is exactly what the Lions need. We saw how much Ireland missed his direction and organisation whilst he was sin binned against Wales in the 6 Nations. He reads the game very well and is a brilliant presence on the pitch.
Scrum Half – Conor Murray OR Rhys Webb
This has got to be the hardest decision that Gatland will have to make. Conor Murray was outstanding against New Zealand in the Autumn Internationals and carried his form into the 6 Nations but Rhys Webb also had a brilliant tournament.
The only thing that might give Conor Murray the edge is the silly individual errors that Rhys Webb makes every now and again. Both are very fiery characters who are constantly in their forwards ears, which is what you want in a 9.
Number 8 – Billy Vunipola
Again, another selection headache. Taulupe Faletau, Jamie Heaslip and, more recently, Ross Moriarty, have all put their hands up for selection and could all make it on the plane in their own right.
I have a feeling that Gatland may select Faletau over his cousin, but, I honestly think Vunipola should start. Vunipola’s size and strength speaks volumes, and I think the All Blacks would find him very difficult to handle.
Flankers – Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric
Trying not to sound too biased here being Welsh, but the pairing of Warbuton and Tipuric are second to none at the moment. Wales have been very poor of late but one thing that has been a shining light to all us Welsh rugby supporters has been the partnership of these two.
Since Warburton gave up the captaincy his game has improved massively. Both are so dominant in the tackle area and their work rates off the ball speak for themselves.
Second Row – Mario Itoje and Alun-Wyn Jones (Capt)
Probably the first two names on the team sheet for club, country and potentially for the Lions. For me, Itoje was not only the best player of the whole 6 Nations, but also the stand out player of the Autumn Internationals.
He’s physical and has also got a great understanding of the game. Alun-Wyn Jones is another one who speaks for himself. His leadership and dedication on the pitch will also probably result in him being named Warren Gatland’s tour captain.
Hooker – Dylan Hartley
Mainly by default. As great as Rory Best is for Ireland, he doesn’t strike me as a starting Lions hooker. Ken Owens has been phenomenal this season and could quite easily walk into the Lions starting 15, never mind just the squad. Yet, the Lions are going to need a leader in the front row and that is what the England skipper offers.
Props – Joe Marler and Dan Cole
No one has really stood out to me this year. There’s been so much potential in the prop department, but I have been hugely disappointed. Samson Lee has heaps of potential but due to injuries he hasn’t reached the heights he could reach. I’d keep the championship winning front three together. They’re tried and tested, and, are very fiery, which is what we may need out in New Zealand.