by Owen Tedford
With the announcement of the British and Irish Lions’ touring squad on Wednesday, the speculation over who will be on the plane can end. Now it’s time to turn our attention to who will start the first test match against New Zealand on June 24th. Obviously, there is still a lot of rugby to be played before then, but barring any major surprises or injuries, I believe the following set of players should be the starters for the first test match.
Loosehead Prop – Jack McGrath. I think McGrath edges out Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler. All three are strong ball carriers, but McGrath’s scrummaging ability and bodybuilder-type body set him apart.
Hooker – Rory Best. Best beats out Ken Owens and Jamie George for his work around the ruck. I think this will be an incredibly important asset for the Lions to be successful in New Zealand, and it’s something that sets Best apart from other hookers. I do think George would be on the bench as an impact substitute, which is something he’s done incredibly well for England under Eddie Jones.
Tighthead Prop – Tadhg Furlong. Furlong is simply a beast. He’s been a monster in the loose for Ireland and Leinster and is an incredibly strong rock in the scrum. If anyone doubts this, I would refer them to see Furlong’s run against New Zealand in Dublin this past fall.
Locks – Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes. Itoje has had an incredible rise to prominence and has received much media attention, and rightly so. He’s one of the best, if not the best, young players in the game right now and has an incredible ability as a ball carrier and has a great ability to poach around the breakdown.
Lawes, for me, brings a level of physicality that’s going to be important in helping the Lions set the tone in New Zealand. He’s been known to lay massive hits against opposing fly-halves and that may be exactly what the Lions need to knock Beauden Barrett off his game.
Flankers – Sam Warburton (C) and CJ Stander. As captain, Warburton will practically be guaranteed a spot in the team. That is not to say that he won’t deserve the spot, but he still has to come back from injury. His leadership will be incredibly important and he had a great Six Nations for Wales this past spring.
Stander has been a star for Munster and Ireland since his move there from South Africa. A big, physical ball runner coupled with pace, Stander’s set to star on this Lions’ Tour. He’s one of the best players in the Northern Hemisphere having been nominated for the 2017 RBS 6 Nations Player of the Championship award and the EPCR European Player of the Year 2017 award.
Number Eight – Billy Vunipola. One of the biggest No. 8s out there, Vunipola is an incredibly powerful runner coming off the back of the scrum. He’s a great player all around the park with his work rate, handling skills and strength over the ball in the ruck. When Vunipola locks in over the ball in a defensive ruck his low center of gravity and size make him practically impossible to move, a skill he’s used to great success for England and Saracens.
Scrum-half – Connor Murray. Murray has been an incredibly solid choice for Munster and Ireland. His box kick is among one of the best in the game, and he has an ability to poke around the fringes when the opportunity is there. His experience of beating the All Blacks in Chicago this past fall is an incredibly valuable asset for him to have at one of the halfbacks.
Fly-half – Johnny Sexton. Again, similar to Murray, Sexton brings with him the experience of having beaten the All Blacks. Paired with Murray, the two have been phenomenal for Ireland in getting their attack started and keeping it varied. His kicking from tee skill is top-class as well and that will be important to keep the Lions in touch if they fall behind.
Inside Center – Owen Farrell. If head coach Warren Gatland decides to play his traditional “Gatland-ball”, then Farrell likely won’t feature at inside center, as he doesn’t fit the mold Gatland would use. However, Farrell should start as he gives the Lions a second playmaker and is another strong kicker from the tee. He’s been fantastic for Eddie Jones at inside center, and Gatland will certainly be giving this combination a long thought.
Outside Center – Robbie Henshaw. In recent times, Henshaw has been able to expand his game beyond just a crash-ball specialist at inside center. With this growth, he’s become more elusive and added more pace that would make him a viable option at outside center for Gatland. He also offers a good deal of size to the back-line, which will be important for combatting New Zealand’s large centers. This size is why I think Henshaw will get picked over Jonathan Joseph.
Wings – Elliot Daly and George North. Daly has been a threat on the wing and a part of an incredibly dangerous attacking team for Wasps. Perhaps his biggest asset though will be his boot though. Daly’s range for a kicker is bigger than almost any other kicker and he regularly will attempt 50m+ kicks at goal for England and Wasps.
North offers some physicality at the wing that will be very necessary to combat Julian Savea of New Zealand as Savea has the ability to run over defenders and then burn them with pace, unlike any other wings since Jonah Lomu. North is an incredible finisher as well when he is on form, which is something that he put on great display last time the Lions went on tour.
Fullback – Stuart Hogg. Hogg is unquestionably the in-form fullback in the Northern Hemisphere right now. He is one of two Scottish representatives on this Lions team and has the best chance to start of the two. He’s been the RBS 6 Nations Player of the Championship for the last two years leading fantastic counterattacks for Scotland and when he joins the line on attack.
I think this is a set of fifteen players who could bring the attacking flair and physicality, in attack and defense, which is necessary to beat the All Blacks. There’s a high level of rugby IQ present on this team and a number of leaders as well as young guys raring to go. Some worry about the Lions getting exposed at the breakdown without a true openside flanker. However, I think this team covers that need with help from other positions, in particular Best, Itoje, and Billy Vunipola.
My Lions XV
- Jack McGrath
- Rory Best
- Tadhg Furlong
- Maro Itoje
- Courtney Lawes
- CJ Stander
- Sam Warburton
- Billy Vunipola
- Connor Murray
- Johnny Sexton
- Elliot Daly
- Owen Farrell
- Robbie Henshaw
- George North
- Stuart Hogg