The time is approaching for Warren Gatland to select his British and Irish Lions squad for this summer’s tour to New Zealand, and the kiwi has some difficult decisions to make across the field. Given the poor form of his Wales side over the last couple of years, I Ed Farrar, Head of Sport at RAW and staunch supporter of the GatlandOut campaign, decided to provide my opinions on the subject to help the Lions coach with his selection issues. Whether Warren will take my advice, or even read the blog, is a completely different matter, but for what it’s worth these are the men I would select to line up against the All Blacks at Eden Park on the 24th of June.
1- Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England)
Choosing between the two England men was difficult but Mako keeps Joe Marler on the bench for his form in England’s historic whitewash of Australia down under whilst the Quins man was taking a break following disciplinary troubles. Similar to his brother Billy the Saracens prop has built his reputation upon his destructive tendencies in open play, and at age 22 he earned three Lions caps in the series victory over Australia. Now with 41 England caps to his name, the same powerful game in the loose, and a more polished set piece presence, Mako Vunipola now has the opportunity to be part of one of the most dynamic Lions front rows of all time.
Also Travelling: Joe Marler (Harlequins, England) Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland)
RAW Chose: Joe Marler (Harlequins, England)
2 – Rory Best (Ulster, Ireland)
At the age of 34 it looks pretty certain that this will be the Ireland captain’s final chance to win a Lions cap and how deserving he would be of the honour. His leadership of Ireland over the last couple of years has been nothing short of exceptional, his powerful ball-carrying and efficiency at the break down are crucial to Ireland’s game plan, and whilst his set piece came under scrutiny during this years Six Nations, his usual precision will surely re-appear at the biggest occasion. He has been pushed close by Ken Owens who was certainly the stand-out hooker at the Six Nations, but Best’s ability to lead from the front gives him the edge.
Also Travelling: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) Jamie George (Saracens, England)
RAW Chose: Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints, England)
3 – Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland)
Where has this man come from? After incredibly strong performances in the Autumn Internationals, the Six Nations, and the first ever Irish win over the All Blacks, the Leinster man who made his full Ireland debut just last summer against South Africa is a certain starter for the tour. His solid and powerful scrummaging has impressed, but what places him above the exciting young Scotsman Zander Fagerson is how dynamic he is in defence and with ball in hand. For a prop he is incredibly fast, has the ability to win a lot of yards in open play and off the fringes, and has excellent hands. He is certainly a dynamic prop with a big future for Ireland and the Lions and I back him to have a big tour against a New Zealand side who would certainly take him into their ranks.
Also Travelling: Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, England)
RAW Chose: Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland)
4 – Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales) (Captain)
Picking between this man and Rory Best for the Lions captaincy was incredibly tough, but I’ve gone for the talismanic Welshman due to his Lions experience in the South Africa and Australia tours of 2009 and 2013. His ability in the set piece is legendary, his ball carrying is powerful, and he is also Osprey’s all time leading try scoring forward so he can contribute in all facets of the game. His recent shoulder injury will impact his opportunities for game time before the tour but if the Lions are to triumph in arguably the toughest task in international sport, the man from Swansea will have to be at the forefront.
RAW Chose: Maro Itoje (Saracens, England)
5 – Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)
Alongside the Lions captain is a man that I fully expect to be a leading figure of many tours in years to come. Defensively he is exceptional as shown by the fact that in the 2015 Six nations he made 85 tackles in the tournament, missing only one. At the line out he is almost faultless, out of the set piece his skills in open play are impressive, and alongside his pure ability across the field his leadership qualities saw him given the Warriors captaincy at the age of just 21. This is a man I fully expect to be Lions captain one day and his efficiency and power will be incredibly important in combating the offensive power of the All Blacks. He will have to perform excellently to hold off the challenge of Itoje, Lawes, or Launchbury to his starting berth.
RAW Chose: Joe Launchbury (Wasps, England)
Also Travelling: Joe Launchbury (Wasps, England) Maro Itoje (Saracens, England) Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England)
6 – CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland)
The debate over whether this man should be playing for Ireland has divided many in the rugby community, what can’t be debated however is his match-changing ability across the field. His form of late has been fantastic, winning Man of The Match awards at pretty much every turn for his powerful ball-carrying and breakdown skills. He also has try scoring pedigree as presented by his 29 try’s in his 93 Munster caps, and by the fact that during this years Six Nations where he bagged a hat-trick during Ireland’s rout of Italy where he became the first forward to score a hat-trick in the flagship European tournament since 1962. Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton will offer Warren Gatland different options during the tour but I fully expect the South African born flanker to make a massive impact during the series.
Also Travelling: Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales) Peter O’Mahony (Munster, Ireland)
RAW Chose: CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland)
7 – Sean O’Brien (Leinster, Ireland)
Again like his national captain, Rory Best, Sean O’Brien didn’t exactly have a vintage Six Nations but he is still the most complete Seven in the business. Powerful in defence, yet another devastating ball-carrier, but also incredibly proficient at the breakdown. When facing New Zealand it is very important to prevent Smith or Perenara from accessing quick ball and to break up the New Zealand play. Facing Sam Kane and Jerome Kaino at the breakdown will be no easy task, but at his best the Leinster man not only has the ability to counter the rucking power of the All Blacks, but also has the ability to debilitate them completely. He is a certainly a player for the big occasion and therefore is my pick for Player of the Series.
Also Travelling: Justin Tiperic (Ospreys, Wales) James Haskell (Wasps, England)
RAW Chose: Justin Tiperic (Ospreys, Wales)
8 – Billy Vunipola (Saracens, England)
The second Vunipola brother to make my Lions starting line up Billy, younger brother of Loosehead Mako, is arguably one of the easiest selections to make. His inclusion makes up a triumvirate of heavy ball-carriers in the back row, and means that all eight of the forwards I have selected can make hard yards against the All Blacks. Even though the entire scrum has the credentials to cause some damage during the series, I fully expect this man to take up the mantle and break the back of the New Zealand defence from the fringes, in open play, and off the scrum. The battle between this man and New Zealand’s captain Kieran Reed, arguably the best player in the world, will certainly be one of the most exciting battles in Lions history.
Also Travelling: Taulupe Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons, Wales)
RAW Chose: Billy Vunipola (Saracens, England)
9 – Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland)
I was very tempted to be incredibly controversial and pick Rhys Webb as my scrum half. I’m a massive fan of the Welshman and the injury that kept him out of the 2015 World Cup was the biggest blow to Welsh hopes of progressing to the later stages of the tournament. He is dynamic, industrious, as well as a try scoring threat, however it must be accepted that the key to an effective back line is a quality half-back partnership and Conor Murray has an established connection with my Fly Half Jonny Sexton at international level. The Munster Scrum Half also featured prominently in Ireland’s historic victory over New Zealand last year, bagging a try against the world champions. It is pretty obvious therefore that Murray has to start but if I was Warren Gatland I would be looking for the opportunity to throw Webb in at some point during the series.
Also Travelling: Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales) Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers, England)
RAW Chose: Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland)
10 – Jonny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland)
The reaction of the Ireland stand-off to the aggressive physical examination that England performed on him at Dublin in the finale of the Six Nations, just showed the strength and determination that will be needed when he faces up against the 2016 World Player of the Year, Beauden Barrett. Since replacing Ronan O’Gara in the Irish 10 jersey, he has surely started the path to being recognised as one of the finest rugby minds in the world, and one of the very best to play in the green of Ireland. His playmaking and kicking skills will be sorely tested in the summer, but we can be assured that there is no greater player in the Northern Hemisphere who could take up the challenge.
Also Travelling: Dan Biggar (Ospreys, Wales) Owen Farrell (Saracens, England)
RAW Chose: Jonny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland)
11 – Anthony Watson (Bath, England)
I watched Anthony Watson live for the first time at Twickenham during the 2015 World Cup warm up against France where he left Brice Dulin for dead with a brilliant sidestep to complete one of the most fantastic finishes I have ever witnessed, and used his incredible pace to finish off a scintillating team move for a second try. At that tournament he was the only positive from England’s lacklustre campaign and since then he has established himself as one of the most talented wingers in the northern hemisphere, scoring a try every two international appearances. He’s powerful, can compete under the high ball, and if the Lions are going to look to isolate players like Julian Savea in defence then there is no player better equipped than the lethal Englishman.
Also Travelling: Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) Liam Williams (Ospreys, Wales)
RAW Chose: Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)
12 – Owen Farrell (Saracens, England)
I was consistently doubtful over Eddie Jone’s deployment of Owen Farrell at Inside Centre but over the last year he has certainly proved to the nation that he can operate on the outside of a playmaking Stand Off. Can this system operate against the mighty All Blacks though? I’m still uncertain, but ultimately this man has consistently performed for England recently, is a goal kicker of the highest standard, and has the leadership qualities that will surely mean his ascension to the England captaincy, when Dylan Hartley is inevitably replaced by Jamie George. It may be a risk to test his defensive capabilities against the All Blacks, but he will provide different options to the Lions across the series with his kicking and distribution, so therefore get’s the nod over Robbie Henshaw.
Also Travelling: Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland) Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England)
RAW Chose: Owen Farrell (Saracens, England)
13 – Jonathan Joseph (Bath, England)
Having appeared for England U20 in the 2011 Junior World Championship Final, alongside George Ford and Joe Launchbury, it seems appropriate for the Bath man to progress to my Lions squad alongside them and form an all England midfield with another graduate of that team, Owen Farrell. His defensive skills will be invaluable during the series, his quick feet and attacking work will test an All Blacks midfield which looks like a potential target for the Lions, and he certainly has an eye for the try line, already scoring two hat-tricks in his England career so far. The Milfield educated centre also saves his best form for the biggest occasion, especially on the international stage, and Gatland will need him to be at his very best to hurt Steve Hansen’s side.
Also Travelling: Garry Ringrose (Leinster, Ireland) Elliot Daly (Wasps, England)
RAW Chose: Jonathan Joseph (Bath, England)
14 – George North (Northampton Saints, Wales)
Who can forget his try in the first test of the Lions series win against Australia? Or the moment that he carried the Australian fullback Israel Folau down the field in attack during the second test? That attacking power has gone nowhere over the last four years and his powerful two-try performance against Ireland just showed why he needs to be in the team. His first try was a fantastic finish and the way he brushed off Rob Kearney in the early stages showed a man ready to have another career defining tour as he did down under last time out.
Also Travelling: Elliot Daly (Wasps, England) Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs, England)
RAW Chose: George North (Northampton Saints, Wales)
15 – Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)
Since the last Lions tour there have been four men who at some point over the four years have established themselves as my Lions fullback at some point. Leigh Halfpenny for a start has always been a reliable player for Wales and an excellent goal kicker, but his attacking ability isn’t quite up to what I would like in my team. Rob Kearney was at one point in my opinion the best fullback in the world for a time, but injury problems and a lack of form means he ha fallen off the selection radar completely. Mike Brown has been excellent for England over the years and has shown his ability to beat players moving forward, cover large amounts of ground through his defensive work, and be incredibly adept at taking the high ball but he doesn’t have the so-called X factor that my pick, Scotland’s Stuart Hogg does. The 2017 Six Nations Player of the Tournament has the ability to produce moments of magic across the field and while I distance myself from the popular idea he is the best fullback in the world, Ben Smith and Israel Falou certainly stand above him, he has the ability to turn a match on it’s head in the space of a few seconds and is certainly one of the Lions biggest weapons to be utilised come the summer.
Also Travelling: Mike Brown (Harlequins, England) Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales)
RAW Chose: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)
Well that is my Lions XV. Some hard decisions to make and I think players like Rhys Webb, Joe Launchbury, and Maro Itoje will certainly make an impact over the series, but ultimately I think this is the best line up to take on the best side in the world. Disagree with any of these views? Well make your views heard by getting involved with RAW Sport now! You can follow our twitter at @RaW_Sport1251 to keep up to date with our events, our Mixcloud at RaWSport to listen back to all our shows and podcasts, and like our Facebook page RAW Sport to get in contact and get involved.