If Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones have every reason to feel good about themselves after a very productive Autumn series for Ireland and England respectively then Lions coach, Warren Gatland, will be equally encouraged after some stellar performances from a host of contenders battling for inclusion in his 2017 selection.
Touring New Zealand as a Lion is probably the most demanding and challenging rugby experience a player from this side of the world will ever encounter. There is a reason why the Lions have only won a single series in the 11 tours undertaken since that maiden voyage back in 1904. Welsh wizard Carwyn Jones apart, it does little to enhance the reputation or career prospects of any coach yet Gatland didn’t hesitate when approached and has been preparing himself for this challenge for some time. It will mark his last major coaching footprint in a decorated managerial career in the UK and Ireland.
Having won a Lions series in Australia in 2013, some would question why he would seek to tarnish an impressive tenure with the tourists as assistant coach in South Africa in 2009 and as head coach four years later. He believes that there is sufficient quality available to win a series against the odds and, believe me, the odds are stacked against him.
Despite the onset of professionalism the concept of the Lions is probably stronger now than ever before. In truth, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand need the Lions — especially for financial reasons — far more than we need them. Yet, and this is something I will come back to, the Four Home Unions, continue to make it more difficult for the Lions touring party to compete at anywhere near their optimum level.
The thing that will please Gatland most is that, on the evidence of a brilliantly entertaining and competitive Autumn series, the players are at his disposal to make the forthcoming series far more competitive than appeared likely just two months ago.
The fact Ireland were the only one of the home nations to play New Zealand, not once but twice, not only afforded an opportunistic springboard for our players to state their claim for inclusion in the tour party (though that can work both ways) the historic victory in Chicago also proved that Steve Hansen’s side are far from the unbeatable monsters many back in New Zealand believed.
When his appointment was belatedly confirmed in September, Gatland made it very clear that he wouldn’t consider selecting anyone who wasn’t convinced the Lions could win the series. He warned: “If you believe we haven’t got a chance, don’t get on the plane.”
Suffice to say, there is nobody within the Irish set up who doesn’t now believe that to be the case.
Ireland showed that once you match the physicality which the All Blacks bring to their game, keep them under constant pressure with and without the ball and take them out of their comfort zone, they are as beatable as any other side.
Factor in also that the English players, under Jones, have discovered a new-found confidence and belief that has seen them remain unbeaten in his 13 games in charge that incorporated a very impressive 3-0 series win over the Wallabies in Australia last summer.
Scotland’s victory over Argentina and one point defeat to the Wallabies will also have worked wonders for their wellbeing. Wales, despite performing below their best, have several players with a winning Lions pedigree and they won’t be lacking in confidence or self-belief either.
Most encouragingly, Gatland is spoilt for choice when it comes to building a forward unit blessed with explosive power and athleticism and the capacity to be technically dominant at the set piece.
In this respect, none will have impressed him more than the Irish propping duo of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong. Up to this point, Gatland would have honed in on the scrummaging solidity offered by Scotland’s WP Nel to anchor his scrum from tight head but Furlong not only showed that he can scrummage with the best but was so explosive in his carrying, tackling and clean out work that he has propelled himself into a leading test candidate.
The second row options are frighteningly good, from the grizzled experience of Alun Wyn Jones to the freakish athleticism of World Rugby’s young player of the year Maro Itoje. He may yet be considered as a back row option.
In between those two, Devin Toner has already done enough in the summer series against South Africa and over the last month to book his place on the plane. That leaves the likes of the Gray brothers, Johnny and Richie, England’s George Kruis along with Luke Charteris, Iain Henderson and Donnacha Ryan fighting for two slots.
I wrote last week of the frightening depth of back row options available to Schmidt for the Six Nations. You can multiply that three-fold when it comes to honing seven for this tour. Injury is always an issue in this key sector and, for that reason, I would bring eight. Look at the competition for the No 8 jersey alone — Jamie Heaslip, Billy Vunipola and Taulipe Falatou. I include all three in my squad.
If Itoje is considered as a No 6 who do you leave out with CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Chris Robshaw and John Barcley all under serious consideration. Look at the competition for the No 7 shirt. Pick two from Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Josh van der Flier, James Haskell and John Hardie.
While Warburton is seen as the leading contender for the captaincy by many, I worry about his run of injuries and a chronic shortage of game time. Right now, for a number of reasons, I would lean towards Alun Wyn Jones as my Lions captain.
The options behind the scrum will be equally plentiful without carrying anything like the depth of real world class quality available up front.
Conor Murray is the standout candidate for the test scrum half slot but Johnny Sexton needs to stay fit and healthy throughout the Six Nations campaign to show that he can stand up to the rigours of this tour.
Robbie Henshaw is certain to be in the midfield mix but the other slots are wide open at present. Gatland has huge time for Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies but neither are in great form with the former dropped by stand-in Welsh coach Rob Howley recently. Jonathan Joseph has promised much for England and Eddie Jones is hoping that the recently returned Manu Tuilagi will be competing for an England shirt soon after losing two seasons to injury.
With Jared Payne ruled out of the Six Nations, Gary Ringrose has a big opportunity to fasttrack his case as does new Scottish sensation Huw Jones.
The back three options are plentiful with Stuart Hogg a certainty for full-back as things stand. It would be nice to see George North and Liam Williams get a bit of ball when playing for Wales to showcase their undoubted talents.
Getting the selection mix right is the single most important thing in giving yourself every chance of a series win. It is also one of the few things that Gatland retains direct control over. Only problem is, even if you get those calls 100% right, how many of your key players will be left standing by the time, what you have to assume will be the series defining, third test, is played on July 8.
There is a hell of a lot of rugby to be played before then.
There are other key issues that will impact greatly on the success of the tour and regretfully, once again, the Lions committee have sent Gatland off to the land of his birth with one hand tied behind his back. More on that in the new year.
Based on recent international form, I select my Lions party if chosen today. No doubt that will change appreciably by April next as new contenders put their hands up and others fall by the wayside due to injury.
Let the debate begin.
DONAL LENIHAN’S LIONS SQUAD
Mako Vunipola, Jack McGrath, Dan Cole, Tadhg Furlong, WP Nel.
Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Sean Cronin.
Alun Wyn Jones (Capt), Devin Toner, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jonny Gray.
Billy Vunipola, Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander, Chris Robshaw, Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Falatou, James Haskell.
Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs, Johnny Sexton, Dan Biggar.
Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies, Jonathan Joseph, Gary Ringrose.
Stuart Hogg, George North, Liam Williams, Tommy Seymour, Anthony Watson, Leigh Halfpenny.
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