B&I Lions: Who will be the bolters and who will have the blues?
OPINION: Warren Gatland will now have a fairly good idea of who is going to be in his British and Irish Lions squad later this year, wherever the series is held.
There is still plenty of time for players to work their way into contention with European rugby still to be played, as well as Scotland’s final match of the Six Nations this Friday against France.
A number of Scots could throw their hat into the ring at the Stade de France, but for the players from the other three Lions nations, their Six Nations campaigns are over.
So here is a proposed 41-man Lions squad after the Six Nations:
At the age of 34, Ken Owens is showing no signs of relenting, and returned to form this Six Nations in perfect time for the Lions.
England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie is battling to become England’s first-choice hooker after years of high-level performances for Exeter Chiefs and now is in a strong position to make the Lions.
Although there have been some question marks over Jamie George’s form this year, class is permanent. Moreover, this is not a position with bags of options.
Wales’ Wyn Jones went from being a contender to make the Lions at the start of the Six Nations to a favourite to start against the Springboks by the end. Carries hard and tirelessly, and has the magical ability to coax the opposition into red card offences.
Good and bad from England and Saracens prop Mako Vunipola this year, which must be partly down to his lack of game time this year with Saracens not playing. But he still has enough of a reputation to make the squad.
Another hugely dynamic loosehead, Rory Sutherland could cement his place in the squad with a strong performance against France.
For Tadhg Furlong, his selection was secure once he overcame his calf injury, and his brutal display against England rubber-stamped his place.
England’s Kyle Sinckler has a distribution game that few in his position can match which makes him such an attractive option for Gatland.
Despite missing a portion of the Championship following his red card against Wales, Zander Fagerson is a rock in the scrum, although he may be pushed by Andrew Porter for a place.
Alun Wyn Jones
The frontrunner to captain the team this year, Alun Wyn Jones proved any doubters wrong about his age this Six Nations.
Had a Six Nations that was hampered by injury, but James Ryan has been one of the favourites to start for the Lions for three years now and nothing has changed.
England’s Maro Itoje was able to iron out his alarmingly high penalty count as the Six Nations progressed, and only averaged one per match in the final two rounds, which would have put Gatland’s mind at ease.
A viable option at lock and blindside flanker, Tadhg Beirne stormed into contention this year. Relentless in defence and as a carrier, and a maestro at the breakdown, the Irishman could start at No6 against the Springboks.
Another player who is capable of playing in the back row, Iain Henderson was part of Ireland’s juggernaut set-piece pack, which has helped him shade competitors like Jonny Gray.
BACK ROW FORWARDS
Wales and Cardiff flanker Josh Navidi provides the defensive resilience that may be crucial to defusing the Springboks.
Capable of playing on the blindside and at No8, CJ Stander’s versatility puts him in a very good position. His standard will only improve as well over the coming months as his career draws to a close.
Gatland may opt to take more forwards than usual this year as he may deploy the 6-2 split on the bench to counter South Africa’s same tactic. If so, Jamie Ritchie’s chances could be boosted considerably, although he is a good shout anyway.
One of three standout openside this Six Nations, Hamish Watson provides power and explosiveness with ball in hand that his rivals do not.
Despite England’s shaky Six Nations, Tom Curry’s standard did not drop and he is becoming one of, if not the most influential, player in the England team.
A Gatland favourite during his time in charge of Wales, Justin Tipuric is the complete package at No7 and a guaranteed Lion this year.
The reigning European player of the year Sam Simmonds may be overlooked by Eddie Jones for England, but could be called upon by Gatland to bring some pace in the wider channels.
After a few injury-dogged years, Taulupe Faletau is playing his best rugby again, and is in a very good position to start at No8 against South Africa.
After struggling for form this year, Billy Vunipola only really showed a glimpse of his best against France, but may still be selected on reputation. But with Saracens playing in the IPA Greene King Championship, he may not have done enough to convince Gatland and has no more opportunities to change his mind.
A tourist in 2013 and 2017, Conor Murray was not as assured to go as he was in previous years. But his commanding performance against England may have earned him a place.
Scrum-half is one of the most open positions going into this Lions year, but Gareth Davies may have worked his way onto the tour on the back of Wales’ form.
It was a mixed Six Nations for Ben Youngs, but his experience may prove to be the difference. Although he will be pushed by Ali Price and Tomos Williams.
As dependable as ever for Wales, Dan Biggar has a strong relationship with Gatland already, but would likely be selected even if that were not the case.
Like his longtime halfback partner for Ireland, there were question marks over the 35-year-old Jonathan Sexton this year, but he showed his class against England and made a huge Lions statement.
The mercurial Finn Russell brings something that his other Lions teammates do not, or indeed many other fly-halves on the planet. The Scot provides the creativity that could be needed against a resolute defence.
England captain Owen Farrell provides a viable option at fly-half and inside centre. Gatland picked him at No10 for the first Test against the All Blacks in 2017, but moved him to No12 for the second and third Tests.
Rock solid for Ireland at inside and outside centre, Robbie Henshaw all but confirmed his Lions place in this year’s Championship.
A classy operator at outside centre, Garry Ringrose has been a favourite to be selected for a while, and provides the footwork and movement that other centres on the tour do not.
The 2017 player of the series Jonathan Davies featured at inside centre this Six Nations for a change, which only bolstered his Lions credentials.
After reinventing himself as a centre over the past year, George North has breathed new life into his Lions chances while still being able to cover the wing.
Rugby’s new sensation Louis Rees-Zammit finished the Championship alongside Anthony Watson as top try scorer, and produced some individual moments of pace and brilliance that booked his place on the tour.
England’s Jonny May has been one of the premier wingers in the world for a number of years now, and though it was not the most flashy Six Nations for him, he has enough in the bank to be picked.
One of the most clinical finishers in the Northern Hemisphere currently, Josh Adams has a prolific strike rate.
Comfortable on the wing or at fullback, Anthony Watson showed glimpses of how dangerous he is during the Six Nations despite being behind a struggling England team.
Duhan van der Merwe
Scotland’s new weapon on the wing Duhan van der Merwe may have had a quieter Six Nations than he had hoped for, but offers raw strength and power out wide. Could make a serious statement against France as well.
Scotland captain Stuart Hogg’s place is never in doubt, and he will hope to earn his first Lions cap after succumbing to an injury in 2017.
Another player who can cover the wing or fullback, Liam Williams will not be too far from the Test team come the tour.
By Josh Raisey, RugbyPass