By Mark W-J
March 22 2017
There’s nothing like a Lions tour of New Zealand to remind people of the importance of London Welsh in the history of world rugby. The victorious 1971 tour, featuring seven players selected from the club, including captain John Dawes - five of whom played in all four tests - was arguably the defining moment in the history of the All Blacks. But who makes the trip this summer? You decide…
I need to make it very clear from the start that this selection is based purely upon performances across all five weekends of this year’s Six Nations. Where players have been selected out of position by their national coaches, they’ve been judged on their performances in that position. If players have missed three or four games through injury they probably won’t get selected ahead of players who have performed reasonably consistently over five matches. And I’ve selected the best individual in each jersey, regardless of combinations, balance etc. Is it the team I’d pick if the first test were this weekend? Absolutely not. All clear? Good…
15. Stuart Hogg. One of the easier selections, if I’m honest. Solid under the high ball, a devastating runner in open play, and a howitzer boot if required. All three of his rivals are going backwards, with two of them - Leigh Halfpenny and Mike Brown - under an awful lot of pressure to retain their position in their national sides.
14. George North. Almost played himself out of contention against Scotland, with arguably his worst ever performance in a Wales shirt, but back to his best against Ireland. Keith Earls had a very good tournament, but if England had picked Jack Nowell to start three or four games then he’d almost certainly have got the nod ahead of North.
13. Garry Ringrose. Until yesterday I’d have picked Huw Jones, but the news that he’s unavailable for selection due to injury caused a last minute re-think. All of the focus over the last couple of years has been around whether Robbie Henshaw really is the new Brian O’Driscoll, but it was his centre partner who really shone in the Ireland backline. Harsh on Jonathan Joseph, who had an outstanding tournament.
12. Owen Farrell. Loathe him or hate him, he really is a class act. Head and shoulders above the competition, he seems to have time and space at centre that allow him to play his natural game.
11. Elliot Daly. It seems ludicrous that England have picked three different players on the right wing - Jonny May twice, Jack Nowell twice, and Anthony Watson once - but consistently select a centre out of position on the left. That decision looked to have backfired when he was sent off after being horribly exposed under the high ball against Argentina, but throughout this tournament he has been outstanding. Honourable mentions for Liam Williams and Simon Zebo, but consistency seals it for Daly.
10. Johnny Sexton. The fact that Wales won the game while he was off the pitch speaks volumes for his importance to Ireland. Great kicking and distribution skills, but you know that the All Blacks will target him, so question marks over his temperament will come into play. Talking of temperament… Dan Biggar still doesn’t exert enough control the game to be a serious contender, so Finn Russell is my back-up option.
9. Conor Murray. If Greig Laidlaw had been fit then he may have made this debate more interesting. Rhys Webb improved game-by-game, but while he probably makes more clean breaks than his counterpart, Murray pips him on distribution and pinpoint tactical kicking.
1. Rob Evans. I don’t know enough about the dark arts to claim any expert insider knowledge here, but I’ve been impressed with Evans’ work around the park. He also last well over 80 minutes in Paris at the weekend against the biggest scrummaging threat in the championship, so he can’t be that bad. Jack McGrath is his biggest threat on form, but Mako Vunipola would be a serious challenger had he played a bigger part in the championship.
2. Jamie George. Controversial, I know, but I’ve been really impressed with George - pinpoint accuracy at the lineout, a steadying influence in the scrums, and a rampaging presence with good hands in the loose. Everything that Dylan Hartley isn’t, in other words. Tough on Ken Owens, who had an excellent tournament.
3. Tadhg Furlong. Only really established himself as Ireland’s first-choice tighthead this season, but had an outstanding tournament. However, this selection exercise has really emphasised the lack of depth in this position, with Samson Lee - despite apparently dropping behind Tomas Francis in Howley's eyes - the only realistic alternative, given Scotland’s consistent struggles at the scrum and Dan Cole’s waning influence.
4. Joe Launchbury. I thought he was very unlucky not to make it to Australia four years ago in his breakthrough season. Incredible that he wasn’t a first-choice pick at the start of the tournament, but was man-of-the-match in Cardiff and just got better from there.
5. Jonny Gray. Probably the most difficult pick to justify, when you consider that I’ve selected him ahead of Devin Toner and Alun-Wyn Jones. If I were in Gatland’s shoes I’d almost certainly go for one of the other two, but as a fan I like Gray’s athleticism and all-court game, which is why he gets picked ahead of those who are probably better at the basics and add more grunt in the engine room.
6. Sam Warburton. Another controversial selection. After three rounds I’d have said that CJ Stander was a shoo-in, but he had a disaster in Cardiff, being replaced before the hour mark. In an ideal world I’d pick them both, with Sam in his preferred position on the openside, but the (self-imposed) rules dictate that I have to select players in the position they played throughout the tournament, so Warburton gets it by the smallest of margins. I'm a huge fan of Maro Itoje, but Warburton and Stander showed that he's still some way from being a world-class six.
7. Justin Tipuric. Maybe I expect too much of Tipuric, but I thought he had a fairly quiet tournament by his standards. Mind you, the same could be said of Sean O’Brien, his main competitor for the shirt. Weirdly, Chris Robshaw seems to have re-established himself as England’s best openside by virtue of missing the tournament.
8. Jamie Heaslip. Same argument as with Tipuric, really - maybe not at his best, but still better than the competition. I was hugely impressed with Ross Moriarty, but I can’t pick the entire Welsh back row - we just didn’t dominate any side enough to justify selecting them en bloc. Nathan Hughes’ stats paint a very different picture to the memories I have of his performances throughout the tournament. Like his brother, Billy Vunipola would probably get selected if he’d played a bigger part in the tournament.
So there you have it - five Irishmen, four Englishmen, four Welshmen and just two Scots. I’m very aware of the fact that I haven’t selected the captain of any of the four home nations, nor nominated a captain for my team. Warburton has been a new man without the burden of captaincy, and it was significant that our discipline in those final 20 minutes in Paris dropped off significantly when Alun-Wyn Jones was off the pitch and Sam assumed the leadership role. And there are certainly changes to be made in the unlikely event of me being asked to choose the team for the first test - not least of all in the second row. But I promised to pick based upon who had impressed me in each jersey over the Six Nations. Over to you.