By Charlie PM
After instinctively opening BBC sport for the sixteenth time today, only to be met with another update of which sport has been added to the ‘indefinitely suspended’ list, it seemed like a good time to reflect on where the 6 Nations has left the status of international rugby.
After feeling adequately smug about my initial predictions that preceded this year’s tournament for the first three rounds (I alluded to a French resurgence), the penultimate weekend threw them into disarray. Scotland’s characteristic upset came against the strong favourites in France and left the championship open between themselves, Ireland and England; begging for someone to take control with a huge final weekend performance. Alas, the final act of this narrative will not be realised until autumn at best, if ever at worst.
A review of the tournament is therefore rendered relatively redundant until it is given its belated closure, leaving room for a little more freedom of options to explore and consider in this period of sporting uncertainty. So, I cast us forward a year and a half to Durban and the first of three test matches played by the British and Irish Lions against world champions South Africa. If I were Warren Gatland, what would my starting XV look like, who are my first names on the team sheet and who has forced their way into contention? Let’s have a look, and most likely prove why these decisions are, in fact, given to someone like Warren Gatland, and not myself.
Here is my Lions starting test XV, based on the Six Nations (and previous performances).
1. Joe Marler (England)
Start how you mean to go on, am I right? Following his already infamous altercation with Alun-Wyn Jones last Saturday, there is every reason to believe we might have seen the last of Joe Marler on the international stage. However, that very much remains to be seen, and controversy aside, I think there is little argument that Marler was the best starting loosehead in the championship this year. Going up against this South African pack, you need a core group of forwards who can stand there, look them in the eye and not budge an inch for the duration of the game. If you needed proof of Marler’s credentials of this, watch the World Cup Final again and see his impact on the scrum when he is brought on in the second half. He is the kind of player Gatland needs in the side, and I believe the most effective team to take on the Springboks has him in or around it.
- Jamie George (England)
Almost a 50:50 call between him and Ken Owens for this spot, but I’ve gone with George purely because it’s what Gatland will most likely do after solving the same conundrum in 2017. Jamie George is on his way to becoming one of the best in the world in his position; a genuinely world class hooker with excellent set piece work, industrious carrying and tackling plus the fast hands and feet required of modern front row forwards. An increasingly essential element of England’s success and a player who improves any squad he is involved in.
- Tadgh Furlong (Ireland)
After quite literally bursting onto the international scene by sending Kieran Read into orbit with a brutal hand off in 2016, Furlong has rapidly scaled the heights of the game and has become arguably the best tighthead in world rugby. An adept scrummager and frighteningly powerful ball carrier, Furlong’s skill and brute force will be required in full in order to try and quell the domination that South Africa’s formidable tight five has the potential to enforce. Simply has to start.
- Maro Itoje (England)
What more can I say about Itoje that hasn’t already been said? He is simply the best lock playing international rugby at this time. A terrifying combination of athleticism, intelligence, technical prowess and leadership makes him a nightmare for any opposition attempting to deal with it, and at his best he is simply unplayable. Lions tests often come down to tiny points margins, and his ability to affect the game ever so slightly through line-out steals, possession turn overs, dominant tackles or gain breaking carries can be the difference between a series win or loss. The first name on the team sheet.
- Alun Wyn Jones – capt. (Wales)
The decision I found the hardest to make so far, and one that will have to be assessed nearer the time. If the first test was tomorrow, then no question he starts and almost definitely as captain. He is still putting in mammoth performances for Wales on a consistent basis and even as the side have struggled, no fault can realistically be placed on his shoulders. The only hurdle in his way is time. He turns 35 this year and it is hard to see him maintaining this level of performance for too much longer, and certainly not as consistently. With great talents like James Ryan emerging and other veterans like Courtney Lawes in the form of their lives, it might be that this series just sees him miss out for fresher blood. However, in what may be a slightly inexperienced squad, his leadership and mileage may become an even more valuable asset, and you would imagine Gatland will do all he can to allow him to lead the side out for the second time as test captain. A legend of the sport who everyone would love to see bow out in style.
- CJ Stander (Ireland)
An outside bet. Tom Curry may seem the obvious choice, or even Josh Navidi with his relentless defense. However, a key aspect of this selection will be about stopping the marauding Springbok ball carriers like Vermulen on the gain line as much as possible, and that’s where Stander prides himself. A ferocious and accomplished blindside flanker, he has the physicality necessary to halt that monstrous pack. Furthermore, he will gain yard after hard fought yard through smart and powerful carrying, with a work rate that will break the hearts of the South African back row all game. A dark horse who I can see having a big impact come June 2021.
- Hamish Watson (Scotland)
This man has almost been a one man machine for Scotland at times this tournament. An incredibly complete 7, he boasts outstanding tackling and phenomenal athleticism that sees his ball carrying stats outshine his counterparts year after year. However, it is his breakdown ability that gives him the edge, with a low centre of gravity and flawless technique necessary to compete with inspirational captain Siya Kolisi and World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit. A very well balanced flanker partnership that will be a thorn in the Springboks’ side for 80 minutes every time. Harsh on Justin Tipuric, but he never seemed to be in Gats’ good books anyway!
- Billy Vunipola (England)
He didn’t play a minute of Six Nations rugby this year, yet would you honestly want anyone else leading the line? After suffering a fractured arm shortly before the tournament began, Vunipola was not able to participate in this year’s championship, but I don’t think that fact will have hurt his chances too much. This is mostly due to lack of serious competition; Stander is a natural 6 who covers 8 for Ireland (albeit effectively), Tom Curry the same for England (admittedly less effectively) and Tulupe Faletau has looked way off the mark since returning from long-term injury. With any luck he will have returned to his bludgeoning best by next year and can give the Lions a platform to operate from during the series.
- John Cooney (Ireland)
The first real wildcard call so far. The home nations aren’t currently blessed with an array of outstanding scrum halves, with none of them close to the level of the world’s best like Antoine Dupont or Faf De Klerk. Ben Youngs and Connor Murray are past their best, whilst Gareth Davies often struggles for fitness in a Welsh jersey. However, everything I see from Cooney impresses me. For Ulster, he controls the game’s tempo, snipes regularly, gives his team multiple options at the breakdown and has a solid kicking game. It might be a little premature, but there’s no doubting his talent and he’s an exciting prospect to follow before the series begins.
- Owen Farrell (England)
Love him or hate him (and I’m aware most of you hate him), there is no denying the fact that Owen Farrell is a world class player. His game management is faultless, his pass selection has developed into one of the world’s best and his kicking from both hand and spot are untouchable. Furthermore, he is a strong leader who has captained his team to a World Cup Final and he will be the general of Warren Gatland’s backline next summer, injury permitting. Sexton brings experience, Biggar is ever-dependable and Finn Russell can set the pitch alight on his day. However, none of them are as complete or perform as consistently as Farrell, and I will be shocked if he doesn’t start at 10 for the series.
- Josh Adams (Wales)
This kid is f**king good. Or at least that’s what I think every time I watch him play. Fast, skillful, defensively sound, there are no major flaws in his game so far and there is no ignoring his ruthless finishing. The sort of player who turns half-chances into chances, and that’s what can make the difference in something as marginal as a Lions test. Storming his way to a starting spot in style.
- Bundee Aki (Ireland)
As effective as he can be, I feel like Manu Tuilagi’s defense-ruining powers are just starting to dwindle slightly, with teams like South Africa fairly well equipped to cope with his direct power-running style. Whilst not possessing quite the same freakish abilities, Aki is no slouch over the gain line, and possesses a more complete skill set with the ball in hand to try and unlock the defensive line, rather than just trying to break it. His tackling in the 12 channel will also be necessary against Damian de Allande and his bone crunching lines at second receiver. A solid, if uninspiring, choice that I can see being made next year.
13. Henry Slade (England)
Another very difficult position to select. I have a feeling it will be one tournament too many for Jonathan Davies, with age and injuries surely catching up with him before the start of this series. With Aki playing a traditional ball-carrying 12 role, a traditional ball-playing 13 will be required in order to balance the backline sufficiently. I’m yet to be convinced by Gary Ringrose as a top-level international and Huw Jones has fallen way off the money in recent times. On the other hand, Henry Slade has done nothing but impress for a considerable time now. Whilst he has not always started this 6 Nations, his importance to the squad has never diminished. A player oozing with class and possessing every necessary skill in abundance; smart kicking, pass selection, great vision, pace, tackling… this guy has it all. An understated yet dependable operator capable of creating and capitalising on chances as and when they present themselves, and I think the Lions would benefit massively from his selection.
- Anthony Watson (England)
It was a delight to see Watson back to his scintillating best against Wales last Saturday. In terms of sheer athleticism, there aren’t many players in the world who can match him, combined with his predatory finishing instincts and you have the perfect winger primed to take any opportunities given to him next summer. Solid under the high ball and a genuine threat from anywhere on the pitch, he terrifies defenses in open play. Even if he doesn’t make a clean break, he always beats the first defender and this opens up space for other players to utilize and exploit (his try last weekend was created a few phases earlier by him doing exactly this). He will always give you options and brings others into the game, a nailed-on starter if he can maintain his fitness.
- Liam Williams (Wales)
Another who’s game time was reduced through injury this year, however there is little to suggest there will be anyone else pulling on the 15 jersey next summer. One of the best fullbacks playing rugby today, he has no real weaknesses to his game and his assured hands under the high ball will be essential in combating the Boks’ relentless box kicking throughout the series. He has already shown what he is made of in a Lions journey and I can’t see him not playing a significant role again next year.
- Ken Owens
- Mako Vunipola
- Kyle Sinkler
- James Ryan
- Tom Curry
- Connor Murray
- Dan Biggar
- Elliot Daly
And that’s my list! Thanks for sticking it out. Some safe bets for sure, but also some calls that I’m sure some people will have a few thoughts on I’m sure. Look after yourselves in this troubling time, and try not to check your sporting apps too much, it only makes things worse.