Tuesday, September 28News That Matters

Gatland has selection dilemmas in EVERY position… how many England players make our Lions squad?

Confirmation that the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa this summer will go ahead as planned has whetted the appetite of rugby fans across the world. 

While there will may not be any crowds at the three Tests and most of the six warm-up matches scheduled between June 26 and August 7, players, coaches, officials and fans will be delighted that we have the prospect of a tour at all, given the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Thoughts have moved swiftly on from whether there would be a tour to who head coach Warren Gatland will pick to take on the world champions – with Sportsmail revealing that a small squad of just 36 players is set to be named on May 6.

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland is weighing up his options

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland is weighing up his options

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland is weighing up his options

After beating Australia in 2013 and drawing with New Zealand in 2017, this will be Gatland’s third tour in charge and first while not also head coach of Wales. 

What impact that has on selection remains to be seen, but with Wales outperforming England, Ireland and Scotland in the recent Six Nations, we still have every reason to expect there to be a strong Welsh contingent in the side that is chosen by the New Zealander. An ongoing dispute over the release of Premiership players for training camps needs to be resolved, but it is unlikely to stop Gatland from picking whoever he wants.

The head coach is likely to pick as many players from 2017 as he can, while those who missed the Six Nations through injury will come back into contention. 

With just over a month until Gatland names his squad, Sportsmail runs through the options he has in each position.  

There are bound to be several injury setbacks for Lions hopefuls between now and the end of the club season in June, so all of the options below are of course fitness-permitting…

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS FIXTURES 

 June 26 – Japan, Murrayfield

July 3 – Stormers, Capte Town

July 7 – South Africa Invitational, Port Elizabeth 

July 10 – Sharks, Durban 

Jul 14 – South Africa ‘A’, Nelspruit 

July 17 – Bulls, Pretoria

Juy 24 – South Africa, Johannesburg

July 31 – South Africa, Cape Town

August 7 – South Africa, Johannesburg

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FULL-BACKS 

On the plane: Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

Vying for a place: Elliot Daly (England), Liam Williams (Wales)

Outside chance: Hugo Keenan (Ireland), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Max Malins (England)

With the news that Gatland is set to name the smallest Lions touring squad this century, versatility is the key word, with the head coach wanting as many players as possible who can play both full-back and wing. Hogg is a shoo-in and certain starter if fit, with Williams – who could start on the wing – likely to take the second full-back spot. Daly is a favourite of Gatland’s, however, having played in all three Tests in 2017, though he needs to find form with Saracens after a difficult Six Nations. Gatland may be tempted to find room for 2013 hero Halfpenny to play in the midweek team. 

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg

England full-back Elliot Daly

England full-back Elliot Daly

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg (left) is a certain pick while Elliot Daly (right) has a fight on

WINGS 

On the plane: Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Anthony Watson (England)

Vying for a place: Jonny May (England), Jack Nowell (England), Jacob Stockdale (Ireland), Josh Adams (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland)

Outside chance: Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland), Keith Earls (Ireland), Jordan Larmour (Ireland), James Lowe (Ireland)

New Welsh sensation Rees-Zammit – still only 20 – will be the first name on many people’s team-sheets after a brilliant Six Nations campaign. Watson – joint-top try scorer with Rees-Zammit on four, a key man in 2017 and able to play full-back – is another likely starter in the first Test. Gatland has lots of options for the final two spots and the key will be balance. The coach is a big fan of Nowell and is likely to pick him if he returns to fitness and form in time, having been plagued by injuries in the last two years. May could miss out again with Gatland likely to favour Adams.

Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit

Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit

England wing Anthony Watson

England wing Anthony Watson

Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit (left) and England’s Anthony Watson (right) were joint-top try scorers in the recent Six Nations with four each

CENTRES

On the plane: Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)

Vying for a place: Manu Tuilagi (England), Henry Slade (England), Garry Ringrose (Ireland), George North (Wales)

Outside chance: Cameron Redpath (Scotland), Bundee Aki (Ireland)

One of the toughest selection areas Gatland has, with versatility and squad balance again the key. Davies and Farrell were the successful combination in 2017 and are both certain to make the squad, though the latter’s starting place is under threat after a poor Six Nations and given the options elsewhere. The consistently impressive Henshaw is at the front of that queue at the moment, though Tuilagi could barge through it if his planned return for Sale next month is successful. North is more of a centre these days, and his return to form and versatility mean Gatland will find it hard not to pick him.

Manu Tuilagi is likely to be selected if he returns to fitness with Sale at the end of the season

Manu Tuilagi is likely to be selected if he returns to fitness with Sale at the end of the season

Manu Tuilagi is likely to be selected if he returns to fitness with Sale at the end of the season

FLY-HALVES

On the plane: Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

Vying for a place: Dan Biggar (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), George Ford (England)

Outside chance: Callum Sheedy (Wales), Marcus Smith (England), Joe Simmonds (England)

Selection doesn’t get an easier for Gatland as we move into the half-back positions. Sexton will be 36 come the first Test and his powers are on the wane, but he definitely goes on tour and probably starts in Johannesburg if fit. With the solidity of Sexton and Farrell in the squad, the maverick Russell could be a given a chance to force his way into the Test team. Biggar would be the more conservative selection, while Ford is probably fourth in line. Gatland could even throw a curve-ball and pick one of the two form English fly-halves that Eddie Jones consistently ignores in Smith and Simmonds.

Scotland fly-half Finn Russell offers Gatland something different with his attacking style

Scotland fly-half Finn Russell offers Gatland something different with his attacking style

Scotland fly-half Finn Russell offers Gatland something different with his attacking style

SCRUM-HALVES

On the plane: Conor Murray (Ireland)

Vying for a place: Ben Youngs (England), Ali Price (Scotland), Gareth Davies (Wales)

Outside chance: Rhys Webb (Wales), Tomos Williams (Wales), Danny Care (England)

This could be a problem position for Gatland, with no one really making the jersey their own during the Six Nations. Murray, like Sexton, is not the player he was a few years ago, but they showed against England they are still capable of dictating a Test match against top quality opposition in tandem. Youngs is frustratingly inconsistent for someone so experienced, but Gatland may see him as a potential matchwinner from the bench. Davies is the Welsh incumbent and most likely to challenge Murray for a start, though Gatland could be tempted to bring Webb or Care in from the cold, having watched both for their club sides recently.

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray

England's Ben Youngs reacts to the Ireland defeat

England's Ben Youngs reacts to the Ireland defeat

Experienced scrum-halves Conor Murray (left) and Ben Youngs (right) are likely to travel

PROPS

On the plane: Wyn Jones (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (England)

Vying for a place: Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Cian Healy (Ireland), Tomas Francis (Wales)

Outside chance: Ellis Genge (England), Andrew Porter (Ireland), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Joe Marler (England)

Even with a smaller squad of 36, Gatland is likely to pick six props to share the workload. On the loosehead side, Jones has made himself a likely starter after a brilliant Six Nations. At tighthead, 2017 hero Furlong returned to fitness and form during the Championship and can front up the Springboks’ physicality. That is likely to leave England duo Vunipola and Sinckler with impact roles from the bench. Gatland has a plethora of options then for the final two spots, and could be tempted to go with the Scottish duo of Sutherland and Fagerson, who have forged a solid partnership. 

Wales prop Wyn Jones (right) enjoyed an outstanding Six Nations and is a likely starter

Wales prop Wyn Jones (right) enjoyed an outstanding Six Nations and is a likely starter

Wales prop Wyn Jones (right) enjoyed an outstanding Six Nations and is a likely starter

HOOKERS

On the plane: Ken Owens (Wales)

Vying for a place: Jamie George (England), Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Ronan Kelleher (Ireland), Rob Herring (Ireland)

Outside chance: George Turner (Scotland), David Cherry (Scotland)

Another position where a Welshman has leapt ahead of Englishmen during the Six Nations. Owens is 34 but is as consistent as they come and his lineout partnership with Alun Wyn Jones could be a bedrock to built this Lions team on. 2017 starter George has lost his England place after a dip in form but Gatland is likely to select him still ahead of the likes of Herring. Cowan-Dickie and Kelleher are both rampaging options, with Gatland likely to choose one or the other.

Jamie George has lost his England place

Jamie George has lost his England place

Luke Cowan-Dickie is England's incumbent now

Luke Cowan-Dickie is England's incumbent now

Jamie George (left) has lost his England place to Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie (right)

SECOND ROWS

On the plane: Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Maro Itoje (England)

Vying for a place: Iain Henderson (Ireland), Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), James Ryan (Ireland), Jonny Gray (Scotland), Courtney Lawes (England)

Outside chance: Joe Launchbury (England), Adam Beard (Wales)

Probably the Lions’ strongest position, with captaincy candidates Jones and Itoje arguably the best in the world and set to resume their successful 2017 combination. There is a wealth of options behind those two for Gatland too, with Beirne enjoying a brilliant Six Nations to join compatriots Henderson and Ryan as tour candidates. His ability to play on the blindside also makes him a likely pick. Gray stands out for Scotland every time he plays and is the closest thing to an Alun Wyn reserve option Gatland has, while the coach is big fan of the big-hitting Lawes, who missed most of the Six Nations through injury and can also wear the No 6.

Ireland's Tadhg Beirne has forced himself into Lions contention after a fine Six Nations

Ireland's Tadhg Beirne has forced himself into Lions contention after a fine Six Nations

Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne has forced himself into Lions contention after a fine Six Nations

FLANKERS

On the plane: Tom Curry (England), Justin Tipuric (Wales)

Vying for a place: Josh Navidi (Wales), Sam Underhill (England), Jamie Ritchie (Scotland), Hamish Watson (Scotland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)

Outside chance: Josh van der Flier (Ireland), Ben Earl (England), Aaron Wainwright (Wales)

There are plenty of exciting options for Gatland on the flanks as he looks for a combination to beat the Boks at the breakdown. The tireless Curry shone despite a poor England effort and will surely start, though Underhill missed the chance to stake his claim through injury. He may have to bide his time behind Tipuric, who shows no signs of slowing down aged 31. Scottish duo Ritchie and Watson also enjoyed fine Six Nations’ while Gatland made O’Mahony captain for the first Test in 2017 and will find it hard to ignore him. Again, balance and versatility will be key. 

Tom Curry was outstanding for England in the Six Nations despite their poor performance

Tom Curry was outstanding for England in the Six Nations despite their poor performance

Tom Curry was outstanding for England in the Six Nations despite their poor performance

No 8

On the plane: Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

Vying for a place: Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Simmonds (England)

Outside chance: Matt Fagerson (Scotland)

While Gatland is likely to pick one or two flankers who can play at the base of the scrum, he’ll want two out-and-out ball-carrying No 8s in his squad to take on South Africa. Faletau’s return to form after years of injury trouble has been refreshing to see – and in complete contrast to his cousin Vunipola’s complete loss of form for England. Simmonds, like his brother Joe, is another to have been ignored by Jones who is in contention, but Gatland also favours bulk and will want to give Vunipola the time to get back to his best. The retiring CJ Stander has ruled himself out.

Wales' Taulupe Faletau

Wales' Taulupe Faletau

England No 8 Billy Vunipola

England No 8 Billy Vunipola

Taulupe Faletau (left) and Billy Vunipola (right) are cousins and both of Tongan heritage

POSSIBLE LIONS SQUAD 

Full-backs (2): Hogg, Williams

Wings (4): Adams, Nowell, Rees-Zammit, Watson

Centres (5): J Davies, Farrell, Henshaw, North, Tuilagi

Fly-halves (2): Russell, Sexton

Scrum-halves (3): G Davies, Murray, Youngs

Props (6): W Jones, Sutherland, M Vunipola; Fagerson, Furlong, Sinckler

Hookers (3): Cowan-Dickie, George, Owens

Locks (5): Beirne, J Gray, Itoje, AW Jones, Ryan

Flankers (4): Curry, Navidi, Tipuric, Underhill

No 8s (2): Faletau, B Vunipola 

Country breakdown: England 13, Wales 12, Ireland 6, Scotland 5

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