Lions Hopefuls, New and Old
With the Lions tour to New Zealand just over a year away, players from the home countries have just the upcoming Six Nations and that of 2017 to stake a claim for a place in the touring party and the chance to pit themselves against the reigning world rugby champions. But what does it take to be a Lion and who is in the running to wear that red jersey?
New talent must prove itself:
Lions touring parties typically include few, if any, uncapped players, the last one being Will Greenwood, who went on the 1997 tour to South Africa and later made a huge name for himself in the England jersey. So, for a realistic chance of selection, players have to make their national team and the Six Nations is a crucial stepping-stone on the way to Lions glory.
With just six uncapped backs named in the extended squads of the four home nations and incumbent players still in favour, newcomers will have to offer something special if they are to make the grade. Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey is big, fast and has great ball skills and will give Ireland a midfield edge if he is picked, he looks to have the goods to press for Lions consideration if he performs well in the green.
England’s midfield continues to be a problem but Ollie Devoto, who is included in the squad for the Scotland match and probably gets his chance because Manu Tuilagi is still not fit, has all the attributes a centre in the modern game needs. But, he can also provide cover at fly half, inside centre and full back if necessary, giving his coach options that Elliot Daly, who has been outstanding for Wasps but has been omitted from the squad, cannot.
Dislodging current incumbents, however, will be tough. Daly, for example, will have to oust Jonathan Joseph whose form may not have yet reached the heights of last season but who has already proved himself at international level. And across the four nations, there are a plethora of backs with already established international credentials.
Ireland fly half Jonathan Sexton is the obvious standout (if he can avoid any further concussions), especially if paired with teammate Conor Murray, as is Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny, provided he can recover from his injuries and regain his old form in time to be considered for the Lions once more. Competition for the centres will be fierce with the likes of Joseph and Tuilagi, Welshmen Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies and Canterbury brand ambassador Robbie Henshaw of Ireland all up there with the best in the world. And it seems unlikely at this early stage that anyone is likely to dislodge George North and Tommy Bowe (Ireland, but currently injured) from the wings.
Rugby matches are won or lost up front and experience is key in the cauldron of the front row. No uncapped hookers are in the Six Nations squads so at this stage Ireland’s Rory Best and England’s Dylan Hartley should dominate. For now, it would also seem unlikely that new props Paul Hill of England and Scots Zander Fagerson
and Rory Sutherland will be able to make a big enough impression to press for Lions selection with the likes of England’s Joe Marler and Dan Cole standing in their way, not to mention the ever-green Welshman Gethin Jenkins.
In the engine room of the second row there are just two new faces, Maro Itoje from England and Ireland’s Ultan Dillane. Both are very young and Itoje, in particular, could find it tough to get much game time given that Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury stand in his way – but Itoje is also a fine flanker so gives his coach more options. However, with the presence of experienced campaigners Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones in the Welsh squad and Richie Gray in Scotland’s, any new lock will have to be brilliant if he is to force his way into the Lions.
In the forwards, Harlequins flanker Jack Clifford has made the cut for England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland. He is a great prospect and looks to be a possible answer to England’s foraging woes at openside with Chris Robshaw moved to the blind. Of course, a huge obstacle for any budding Lions number 7 is Sam Warburton, who captained the 2013 Lions and is one of the world’s best in the position. And then there are back rowers Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric of Wales, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien of Ireland and England’s Billy Vunipola to consider.
What it means to be a Lion:
Participation in a Lions tour is an unforgettable and very special experience in the life of any rugby player. Each will describe it in his own way but these views from three great Lions best sum up what the Lions jersey means.
“To me, the Lions represent the spirit, values and principles of rugby football. Four countries come together as one with a purpose to win and to me it is that comradeship, sportsmanship and bond that makes the Lions so special.”
Martin Johnson: Martin reckons that the adjustment of blending with players who have been bitter on-field rivals was often the most important phase. According to him, “… it is very intense from the first time you get together,” and: “The great thing is you get to play with those guys who have always been a pain and suddenly they are on your team.”
Sam Warburton: According to Sam, playing for the Lions was the culmination of a childhood dream and so important that his Lions jersey is the only one he has hanging in his home.
“You can learn a lot from players, not just playing with them but being in their company and being on tour that’s what it’s all about – being on tour and making new friendships.”
A clearer picture:
As the Six Nations unfolds we’ll see who is making the grade. Keep an eye on out posts at www.canterbury.com/thelions and you’ll find out.