UNBEATEN ENGLAND AND ALUN WYN JONES A FAVOURITE FOR LIONS CAPTAIN
It was great to kick off the build-up to the Lions tour with some popular Thomas Pink events in London last December and to see so many Pink Lion Rugby Club members in attendance over the three evenings.
A lot of discussion at those events surrounded the Autumn Internationals, so I wanted to share my view on who the top performers for the home nations were, who the front runners for captaincy are and which players have gone some way to securing their seat on the plane to New Zealand this year.
I think it's fair to say the standout performers from the November internationals have come largely from England and Ireland. With four and three wins respectively they should be the ones planting the early seeds of selection in Warren Gatland’s mind.
Ben Youngs and Conor Murray both played terrifically well during the Autumn series and must be the front runners for the starting 9 jersey. Owen Farrell continues to impress as a World Class operator at 12. His versatility as a 10/12 option makes him key to a Test match day squad.
From Scotland Stuart Hogg is still playing his usual game to great effect and Finn Russell has now hit a rich vein of form for Glasgow Warriors in the European Champions Cup.
Alun Wyn Jones must be a favourite to lead the Lions in New Zealand with some towering displays for club and country. In my opinion, given recent events, Alun Wyn and Rory Best are now clear favourites for the honour of Lions Captain – watch this space.
One thing is for sure, I believe Ireland beating the All Blacks was the biggest moment in the November Series. It served as a reality check that no team is infallible. It also provided a shot in the arm for the Lions knowing that when four teams combine their powers will be considerably strengthened.
It would also be unfair not to mention England’s fantastic unbeaten achievement, and for me there are some characters in particular who have been the main catalysts of that run. Owen Farrell has been massive for them, the way he has been able to control games in his less preferred role of 12. I think he has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years in his ability to read a defence and pull the trigger on late passes. He’s developed new aspects to his game that I didn’t see when I was part of the Lions in 2013.
Based on current performances, it’s pretty difficult to pass judgement on what the Lions team will look like, I don’t think there’s that many certainties. We are going to have to wait for the Six Nations to happen for it to shape itself. However there’s been a couple of other England players who I think have made a strong claim to their places on the plane next year ….
I would say that Maro Itoje (even though he didn’t play in the November series) has to be a shoe in for the Test team and Billy Vunipola will be tough to shift as a starter at 8. Jamie Heaslip might have something to say about that however! Mako Vunipola, who is going to be pushed hard by Jack McGrath, is also playing the best rugby of his life, although injury appears to have come at the wrong time for him.
Wales have some work to do with Liam Williams being the shining light for them. I sense Ross Moriarty will need to play a bit more at 6 internationally to be in the frame come June.
So next up it’s the Six Nations, and a lot of players look at those matches as a massive opportunity. A really good performance in the Championship could be rewarded with a place on the plane to New Zealand.
For this year’s tournament you have to look at England and Ireland, based on form, and the final weekend of the 6 Nations has the two of them pitted against each other in the final match! People are getting ahead of themselves by saying that will be a Grand Slam game, it would be great if it was but there’s lots of teams who are going to have their say in the tournament before that game. Wales always turn it on in Lions years and Scotland look to be improving and growing in confidence.