BRIAN O’DRISCOLL GIVES HIS VERDICT ON POTENTIAL LIONS
The Championship never fails to excite rugby fans and the players alike. It’s a very unique tournament with a lot of pride at stake. You often see players going to new levels in the knowledge they will be squaring up against their home nation rivals, and I have to say this year was no exception.
The level of ability on show and some of the team and individual performances were hugely impressive. I don't think it's been a tournament where one player has been consistently brilliant but Owen Farrell has shown more than a few glimpses of his genius. His development as a player has been most impressive over the past couple of years and he has shown how essential he could be to the Lions success this summer with some towering displays. His passing quality and vision at 10 or 12 creates space in the wider channels which will be essential in the summer.
Stuart Hogg has been very impressive - particularly in attack. His ball handling has improved out of sight and has been added to an already impressive strike running game. He along with Jonny Gray have been Scotland’s stand out performers. Liam Williams along with a rejuvenated George North continues to be the one to watch in Wales. He's tough as a nut, has nice skills & possesses that sneaky speed. All attributes that will be called upon playing the All Blacks.
Conor Murray picked up where he left off from the November internationals and was in scintillating form. For me, he is a shoe in to feature in a Lions jersey in New Zealand and is probably my favourite ahead of Rhys Webb for the Test spot. Defensively there isn't a better 9 around and his box kicking is a real asset to any team. CJ Stander’s ball carrying has been really impressive too, he is an expert at gaining the hard yards and it goes without saying that will be needed in the summer – he's certainly made his case for a seat on the plane. But my Irish player of the tournament is Tadhg Furlong, his display in the final Test against England means he just pips it over CJ Stander. He and Dan Cole must be the two contesting the Lions Test no 3 jersey. His work rate, defensive smarts and powerful scrummaging have been the hallmarks of an impressive campaign.
Excuse my bias but my Lions number 10 is Johnny Sexton all day. When you have someone alongside him, like Owen Farrell, who is playing that well at 12 it makes a big difference. That pairing has the feel of a wicked combination and I'm a big believer in getting as many players with real X Factor into your side. That's the only way you beat the best sides.
I also believe there have been a few players throwing their hat in the ring for Captaincy on the Lions tour. The frequently asked question is, ‘What do you want from a tour captain and a team captain?’, and I would say that ideally I want them to be one and the same. In a perfect world your Tour Captain is the first name down on your Test sheet. However if that's not the case you need a leader that would have the ability to accept the disappointment of not being selected while still performing his role and getting the best out of the squad. Sam Warburton has become the bookies favourite (and rightly so in my opinion) for the title after some impressive performances over the past couple of months. With some question marks over his future in the Wales team, he answered his critics in emphatic style with a big tournament, in his less favoured position of blindside flanker.
From a team perspective in this year’s Championship no one side consistently underperformed, which augurs well for driving higher standards. England have gotten progressively better whilst still winning below their best. Their performance against Scotland was very dominant. The intent they showed from the off in playing a wide expansive brand of rugby set the tone for the remainder of the game. The quality of their set piece plays cut Scotland to shreds. The intricacies of those plays only worked because of the lines of running of those that didn't receive the ball. They sat defenders down creating space for others.
The game I enjoyed the most this year (as a neutral) was definitely Wales v England. It was a proper Test match. Incredible intensity with nothing between the two teams, they certainly both left it all on the pitch. The England bench once again was the difference, and the strength of the bench is something that will be crucial when the Lions take on New Zealand in the summer.
The final games of the tournament, England v Ireland in particular, definitely acted as a final audition for some players on the brink of selection. Warren Gatland must know 95% of his squad by now but a few Irish players may have just positively swayed his opinion with that huge performance & win.
Players now heading back to a domestic club after the Championship will have their mind on a few things. If their clubs are still in Europe they are guaranteed to have at least one more big game to play in before the squad is selected, meaning they still have time to show Gatland what they can do. Secondly if their team is competitive domestically, the business end of the season gives players the chance to strive for peak match fitness – meaning that and their confidence should be in a great place ahead of the summer.
Whatever the outcome for selection in April one thing is for certain … we will be in for some scintillating rugby this summer!
Special mentions to a few others that are certain tourists, fitness permitting this summer. Maro Itoje & Alun Wyn Jones look like a second row pairing to get excited about. Mako & brother Billy Vunipola back to full fitness is massive to see and even though he hasn't gotten much game time watch for Toby Faletau to make the final selection on April 19th.