15. Stuart Hogg
He probably won’t be Gatland’s first choice as he may go with Liam Williams. There is a feeling that Hogg may be a little shaky under the high ball and that he isn’t always the best tackler. I think both these things are unfounded and that Hogg is as able as anyone else in the squad. The Lions Test team always needs a little vision, X-factor if you like, in the ranks and that is what Stuart Hogg brings in spades.
14. Anthony Watson
He has had more than his share of injuries over the years but when he is fit and firing he is among the best around. He is an experienced player, I have avoided the temptation to select any ‘bolters’, always opting for experience over youthful promise throughout the team. Most importantly in South Africa, Watson is secure under the high ball because the wingers are going to receive plenty of box kicks. Where the tour will be held is all important because Murrayfield/Twickenham is a very different proposition. The latest news suggests that the tour will be held in South Africa so that is what I have assumed in selection.
13. Garry Ringrose
He is a tremendous player for Ireland and for Leinster. A safe defender with a sharp outside break. When he plays well, Ireland play well, it’s that simple. I remember him coming through at U20’s level and some Irish pals of mine said he was the next Brian O’Driscoll. Ringrose has the intelligence to defend the all important 13 channel and the pace to get himself out of trouble if he makes a mistake.
12. Robbie Henshaw
An easy selection for me as Robbie Henshaw was one of the stand-out players in the recent Six Nations. He makes the game look simple by doing the basics very well and almost always doing the right thing at the right time. I might consider Manu Tuilangi at inside centre, not outside, but only if he was 100 percent match fit and he is a long way off that right now.
11. Liam Williams
As I have already said, Gatland might want the Welshman at full-back but I have him on the wing. He is good in the air, obviously, but he offers a lot more than just that. Williams is a clever player and experienced. There will be some who call for Louis Rees-Zammit, but while the young speed man may travel in the extended squad there is no real time on tour to allow players to develop so I have gone for experience.
10. Finn Russell
I am not convinced that Gatland will agree with me but I have selected Finn at ten simply because he can win a match for you or enable someone to do so. In contrast to some reports, I thought that Finn played very well on Friday night against France, when he was on the field. He knows what he is doing on the field but it sometimes looks as if no one else does and that means everyone around him needs to be switched on at all times. Gatland may prefer to go with Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell at ten/twelve. These are all top-notch players but while I am a big fan of Farrell I don’t think the English captain has done himself any favours in this Six Nations.
9. Conor Murray
This is not an area of strength for the Lions but Murray is the choice mostly because he can land a box kick on a sixpence; it is rare that one of his kicks can’t be contested. He is good defensively and he can threaten with the ball in hand … not that he very often does. I am not a great Ben Youngs fan and I think Ali Price has a few things to work on. I would back up Murray with Gareth Davies of Wales on the bench.
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1. Wyn Jones
There were plenty of candidates for this post and I mulled over the respective merits of Cian Healy, Mako Vunipola and Rory Sutherland before opting for Wales’ Wyn Jones. He does it all, scrummages strongly, carries and defends with aggression. Healy is getting a little long in the tooth and Sutherland was probably better last season when he was so powerful in the set scrum, especially for someone who only moved from the back-row as an adult. Mako Vunipola does not look fit or at the top of his game.
2. Ken Owens
This is not an area of strength although it could have been, had both of Scotland’s injured candidates, Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, had more rugby under their belts. England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie is a contender but Jamie George looks like he is carrying a few too many pounds around the middle to be fully fit. Owens has been crucial to the Welsh revival in the Six Nations following that forgettable autumn series.
3. Tadhg Furlong
Furlong is a big beast of a man and you need to meet and match the Springboks for power in the forwards. He also has good footwork, as he proved against Scotland, and soft hands. He is the outstanding tighthead with Kyle Sinckler not too far behind although the Englishman seems beset with demons if things don’t go his way.
4. Alun-Wyn Jones (captain)
You need a strong captain and Alun-Wyn Jones has enjoyed an outstanding season for Wales. You need someone to inspire confidence in the dressing room ahead of kick-off, like a Martin Johnson character, and that is exactly what you get with Alun-Wyn who just gets better and better with age.
5. Maro Itoje
Such an athletic and clever player, if you ignore the penalty count, Itoje has to be in the starting XV. He is a line-out specialist, both in attack and defence, although England probably don’t use him as much as they should. I am not convinced that James Ryan is quite as good as his biggest fans would have us believe. I hope England’s Joe Launchbury goes with the squad as he does all the little unseen things that make the difference in the tight exchanges; a midweek skipper in the making?
6. Tadhg Beirne
Another supremely intelligent player whether he plays at lock or in the back-row and I have him at six to match the power that the World Champion Springboks will field in their back row. He was excellent not only in the Six Nations but also in the PRO14 final in a losing cause for Munster.
7. Tom Curry
There are a host of players who put their hand up for this shirt and I have been swithering between four or five different players including Hamish Watson, Josh Navidi, Josh van der Flier and Sam Underhill, who may yet prove the best of the bunch. But I have gone for Curry because he is Mr Consistency. If you saw him across the changing room you would know that you were going to get 100 percent effort from your open0side. I hope Watson travels but I don’t think Scotland get the best out of him by having him as a ball carrier in the heavy traffic rather than use him as a distributor/attack weapon in the wider channels.
8. Taulupe Faletau
This was a relatively easy one for me as I am not a Billy Vunipola fan. England number eights tend to bash the ball up but when Faletau’s picks and goes you always think something will happen. I would back him up with the dynamic Englishman Sam Simmonds and perhaps even Zach Mercer, another intelligent player who starts at eight ahead of Faletau for Bath most weeks, with the Welshman wearing six.
I hesitate to say too much about individual Scots and their aspirations to tour with the Lions but I hope we should get perhaps five or six players in the wider squad including Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell. I wouldn’t select him for his poor defence but Duhan van der Merwe may go given his raw speed and power. Rory Sutherland, Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie can all keep their fingers crossed. Ritchie played his best game this season for Scotland against France but only after a relatively quiet Six Nations. Still only 24, he would benefit more than most by touring with the Lions.